What Should Ballet Dramaturgy Achieve? by Horst Koegler

by Horst Koegler
Transcribed from a lecture given in 1976 at the Noverre Society in Stuttgart, Germany -June 29, 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Ilona Landgraf

Had anyone asked John Cranko what ballet drama­turgy is, I ima­gine he might have ans­wered, “Ballet drama­turgy is the fig­ment of a frus­tra­ted German ballet critic’s ima­gi­na­tion, and that per­son is Horst Koegler.” I have no illu­sions what­so­ever about my per­sis­tent demand for more bal­let dra­ma­turgy. I dwell on it in order to cor­rect an in­to­ler­able si­tu­ation that puts ballet at a dis­ad­van­tage com­pared to drama and opera.

Because the term bal­let dra­ma­turgy didn’t exist in the past and bal­let got along with­out it, some people today do not see the need for it. Al­though I can under­stand this at­ti­tude his­to­ri­cally, I don’t agree. Theater dra­ma­turgy has ex­is­ted ever since Aris­totle’s Poetics, which spelled out the rules for comedy and tra­gedy. We also know what Gott­hold Les­sing’s Ham­burg Dra­ma­turgy ac­com­plished for the Ger­man theater. Opera dra­ma­turgy is less ex­pli­citly fixed and, des­pite the Flo­ren­tine Came­rata’s erudite debates on the topic, never produced globally accepted standards.

Still, evidence for the existence of both opera dramaturgy and theater dramaturgy can be found on our stages, even if here in Stuttgart it’s doubtful. But whoever heard of ballet dramaturgy in our theaters until now? The profession of ballet dramaturge doesn’t even exist. Where ballet dramaturgy is actually practiced in our country (and I don’t exclude Stuttgart by any means), it is either in the safekeeping of the ballet director himself (as with John Neumeier in Hamburg) or is an adjunct of opera dramaturgy.

 

What amazes me more is that our contemporary dance theater companies, whose directors (such as Jochen Ulrich in Cologne and formerly Gerhard Bohner in Darmstadt) are quite aware that ballet (or dance) dramaturgy is needed, do not advocate for the establishment of a dramaturge position in their own companies. Pina Bausch in Wuppertal, too, showed no such initiative. Then, Edmund Gleede [director of the Bavarian State Ballet] fell into her lap. I don’t even know if she’s especially happy about that, although the recent Stravinsky ballet evening in Wuppertal is the only one in the three years there of Bausch’s creative work that, owing to Gleede’s participation, has a total dramaturgic concept.

“Where to begin with what doesn’t exist at all?” I hear the bal­let­goer ask. This is a dif­fi­culty I don’t un­der­es­ti­mate. But without ef­fec­tive en­cou­rage­ment by thea­ter people, hardly any­one will tackle this la­bo­rious task, this pi­o­nee­ring achieve­ment. I’m con­vin­ced that there are young stu­dents at our uni­ver­si­ties who would be in­te­rested in such a job and would be qua­li­fied for it if they were en­cou­raged.

I know at least one woman at the Uni­ver­sity of Mu­nich who would be an ideal bal­let dra­ma­turge, if only she were given the chance. How­ever, even in Hamburg, where the opera luxu­riates with four es­tab­lished dra­ma­turgy posts, Neu­meier seems re­lu­ctant to offer her a re­gu­lar po­si­tion. For the du­ra­tion she is em­ployed piece­meal, while Neu­meier him­self, who is ap­pre­hen­sive of “dra­ma­turgy,” refers to her as a re­sear­cher, an in­ves­ti­gator, some­one who sup­ports him in ex­plo­ring sour­ces for his next pro­duc­tion. She ex­plored so tho­roughly, found so much new ma­terial and new in­sights, that Neu­meier’s up­coming Swan Lake pro­mises to be sig­ni­ficant and a sen­sation. On the other hand, Stutt­gart thought of pur­cha­sing from the Kirov the exis­ting antiquated 1952 production of The Sleeping Beauty by Konstantin Sergeyev, rather than mounting its own.

What I wonder about again and again is why no dramaturges emerge from the ranks of the dancers themselves. Often the transition to another profession is really problematic for them. During their careers as dancers, the most intelligent must have realized how much today’s ballets all suffer from a lack of dramaturgy. I think that especially dancers, with their knowledge of the medium, are qualified to be ideal ballet dramaturges, provided they pick up the necessary knowledge. Slumbering here is the chance for a successful profession – unrecognized up to now.

I am advo­cating for ballet dra­ma­turges not from ulterior mo­tives. I do not in­tend to be­come one my­self, and ce­rtainly not at the Stutt­gart Bal­let. Just as I’d never want to be­come a bal­let com­pany di­rec­tor any­where. I did my ap­pren­tice­ship in the theater before em­bar­king on writing and haven’t the least am­bi­tion to re­enter by the stage door as a dra­ma­turge or stage director at the opera (which I already was), nor as bal­let di­rec­tor or general manager.

Even if cros­sing from theater to jour­na­lism has become more and more fre­quent re­cently, that’s not my stri­ving. I con­sider my­self a bal­let jour­nalist in the broa­dest sense of the word. I simply love to write, as dif­fi­cult and in­crea­singly hard as it is to exist as a free­lance bal­let jour­nalist these days. Should I be frust­rated? This might be the case, only I haven’t rea­lized it my­self up to now. Maybe I’m slow on the uptake.

Back to bal­let dra­ma­turgy. What should it be and what should it achieve? We have to dis­tin­guish between two dif­fe­rent kinds of dra­ma­turgy. One deals with the pro­cess of cre­a­ting a per­for­mance; the other de­fines the pro­file of the re­per­tory, maybe even of the com­pany. Any­one who saw The Prince of Hom­burg at the Ber­liner Schau­bühne at the Halle­sches Tor ex­peri­enced the ideal si­tu­ation in which both kinds of dra­ma­turgy were manifested. A completely new perception of a familiar classical play was the result of the interaction of dramaturgy and production. This dramaturgically initiated new perception became the hallmark of the repertory and the intention of the theater.

A stylistic phenomenon of similar coherence I find only in one ballet ensemble, New York City Ballet. Yet there is just as little deliberately practiced dramaturgy there as at The Royal Ballet or the Ballet of the 20th Century. The example of Berlin’s Schaubühne shows that dramaturgy doesn’t exist in isolation. It depends on what is being prepared for staging and on the production, by which the piece (whether drama, opera, ballet, and everything in between) is made alive in the theater. I overvalue the capabilities of dramaturgy not in the slightest. A production without dramaturgy is possible, and happens at most of our theaters. Whereas dramaturgy without production remains merely theory and is condemned to sterility.

Referring to ballet, is dra­ma­turgy only an­other ex­pres­sion for draf­ting a lib­retto or sce­na­rio? Who­ever be­lieves this is pro­foun­dly wrong! A bal­let dra­ma­turge is not a lib­ret­tist. De facto, it might seem to be the case. John Cranko was his own bal­let dra­ma­turge, even if he pre­ten­ded not to know it. He con­sidered a “dra­ma­turge” to be a ty­pi­cally Ger­man in­ven­tion. But there is no doubt that his big story bal­lets have their own dra­ma­turgy. Con­tained in his Onegin, The Taming of the Shrew, and Carmen, and also his stagings of clas­sics like Swan Lake and Nutcracker, there are en­tirely de­li­berate, highly in­tel­lec­tual con­si­derations that preceded the creative process of cho­reo­gra­phing. He might have phrased it dif­ferently, even re­jected the term dra­ma­turgy as too high­brow and pre­ferred to talk of pro­ducing a li­bretto or a sce­nario.

So, Cranko was dra­ma­turge, li­bret­tist, cho­reo­grapher, and stage director, an im­pos­sible bur­den that is still commonly prac­ticed in ballet. It cer­tainly could also be blamed for the rapid wea­ring out of our cho­reo­gra­phers’ core power for making bal­lets, simply be­cause they are phy­si­cally over­chal­lenged. Today, nobody would expect an opera composer to write the libretto, compose the music, rehearse the parts with the singers and the orchestral musicians, and also mount and conduct the opera. Yet all this is expected quite naturally of today’s choreographers, whether the great Balanchine or the little Miss X in the middle of nowhere.

This example shows that choreography is the creative achievement of an author, an achievement comparable only to the job of a dramaturge or a composer, not a postcreative role done by a stage director or conductor. Indeed, choreographers are partly to blame for the crazy demands on their vigor.

One of the main reasons for this is that ballet still hasn’t developed a generally accepted notation system, one that allows choreographers to compose their ballets at their desks at home in order to hand over the choreographic score to the ballet’s stage directors for production afterwards. I know this is an idea considered by many dancers and choreographers as somehow absurd, but I think of today’s way of creating choreography on the living body of a dancer as an entirely anachronistic and above all uneconomical working process. It is simply outdated in this century.

However, there’s an­other rea­son for this no lon­ger jus­ti­fi­able over­strain of our cho­reo­gra­phers: their re­fu­sal to de­le­gate co-crea­tive res­pon­si­bi­lity. In this res­pect the cho­reo­gra­phers of the past ac­tually were one step ahead. In the past century, but partly still in Diaghilev’s time, they com­mis­sioned others to write their li­bret­tos. Neither La Syl­phide, Giselle, Swan Lake, nor Sle­eping Beauty has a li­bret­to by the bal­let’s ini­tial cho­reo­gra­pher.

Yet in these days our cho­reo­gra­phers with­out ex­cep­tion feel ob­liged to write all their li­bret­tos them­selves. It hap­pens with Cranko as with Tetley, Béjart, Mac­Millan, Neu­meier, and Gri­go­ro­vich. Where the whole world now­adays aims to de­le­gate res­pon­si­bi­lity, our cho­reo­gra­phers can­not get enough of it, es­peci­ally since in most cases they are also bal­let di­rec­tors, par­ti­cu­larly of our largest troupes.

They all behave a little bit like Wagner, but he was wise enough to restrain his appetite for power to a few festival weeks in Bayreuth and he did leave the conducting to his staff there, while today our choreographers try to practice the Wagnerian plenitude of power for twelve months a year. No wonder constraints in the daily course of business often obstruct their view of crucial contemporary truths, for what’s happening in related artistic fields, for new perspectives and new approaches.

Raised in the world of ballet and shaped by its training method’s discipline, their minds work in well-trodden paths. It has always been done this way, has proved itself, and so it has to be like this. They don’t have the power any more to search for new approaches. In most cases they lack orientation about what’s going on next to them and are unable to use it as stimulation for their own work.

My concern is less a theo­re­tical in­ves­ti­gation of the term ballet dra­ma­turgy than a high­ligh­ting of con­crete exam­ples from today’s bal­let world, exam­ples of work for which a drama­turge should be a ne­ces­sity. I con­sider it a role for some­one who pro­vides ideas and is a super­visory authority for the cho­reo­gra­pher, a first dis­cus­sion partner.

The role should in­clude being the fa­ci­li­ta­tor for a piece, de­ter­mi­ning what should be de­ve­loped from scratch, and someone who moderates the dis­cus­sions among cho­reo­gra­pher, li­bret­tist, com­po­ser, and stage and cos­tume de­sig­ner. The ideal bal­let dra­ma­turge should be equip­ped with a pro­found gene­ral know­ledge in the hu­mani­ties, be com­pletely fa­mi­liar with bal­let his­tory and in­formed up-to-the-minute about what’s going on in every ar­tis­tic area. He or she should have a flair for artistic de­velop­mental pro­ces­ses and above all a skill that is a sine qua non: a great deal of ima­gi­na­tion. A must is to ar­ti­culate and reason, not just opin­ionate.

Still other traits are tactical diplomacy and being reasonable, but not dogmatic, since the dramaturge’s closest working partner is the choreographer. And choreographers, at least the really creative choreographers, are mostly extraordinarily sensitive and vulnerable people. So the dramaturge ought to know how to deal with people, especially those who call themselves “artists.” This ideal ballet dramaturge did exist, even if he himself had no idea that he was one and considered himself an impresario: Sergei Pavlovich Diaghilev, the creator of the Ballets Russes, the company that from 1909 to 1929 set the course for modern ballet.

The dramaturge is a pro­du­cer of ideas, a se­du­lous sti­mu­lus who, with his know­ledge of the con­tem­po­rary art scene, con­stan­tly places new sug­ges­tions into the cho­reo­gra­pher’s hands. Even more than is the case in drama and opera, ballet people take exis­ting pie­ces, the so-called clas­sics as well as pie­ces of the modern re­per­tory, as an im­mu­table source for the li­bret­to and the score, with the ori­gi­na­lity of the pro­duc­tion ari­sing mostly from the decor.

Cranko seemed per­fectly aware of the need to see es­pe­cially the clas­sics from a new pers­pec­tive. His Swan Lake pro­duc­tions in Stutt­gart and Mu­nich allow us to draw this con­clu­sion, but most of all his Nut­cracker in Stutt­gart, which his new dra­ma­turgy li­be­rated from the cap­ti­vity of being a Christ­mas bal­let and made into a bal­let for all sea­sons. How­ever, Cranko would have staged this pro­duc­tion with much more care and con­sis­tency and avoided the mishap with the decor had there been con­stant su­per­vi­sion by a dra­ma­turge, for example, one like Diaghilev.

Neumeier pursued Cranko’s approach for his Nutcracker: he also converted it into a ballet fairy tale for all seasons but went one step farther by expanding it into an allegory on the art of ballet. His Drosselmeier is none other than the great Petipa himself, author of the original libretto. By all accounts from Hamburg we will experience something similar in Swan Lake, originating from Cranko but surpassing Cranko, namely the connection to Ludwig II of Bavaria.

Actually this reference existed already in the Munich production. It was not yet more distinct than in Stuttgart, being only a stage set and a reference in the decor, both by Jürgen Rose. That Neumeier seems to be identifying Prince Siegfried with Tchaikovsky and Ludwig II (according to Hans Mayer’s new book Außenseiter [Outsider]) is of eminent current interest.

That’s the current status of bal­let’s clas­sical dra­ma­turgy. Eight years ear­lier Cranko took up his work in Stutt­gart. Today people in Stutt­gart talk a lot about pre­ser­ving the Cranko heritage and about for­ti­fying the foun­dation Cranko created. Ob­vi­ously how­ever, he was much more ad­vanced in his un­der­stan­ding of the clas­sics than those res­pon­sible for bal­let in Stutt­gart today.

Rather than moun­ting a pro­duc­tion of its own, Stut­tgart thought of buying the Kirov’s exis­ting 1952 Sleeping Beauty. How Hans-Peter Doll, himself coming from dra­ma­turgy, and Glen Tetley, who con­fronts us with fu­tu­ris­tic dra­ma­turgy that no one else com­pre­hends, both of them res­pon­sible for Stutt­gart Bal­let, could even think of buying such a dated ver­sion of The Sleeping Beauty is in­com­pre­hen­sible to me.

I ack­now­ledge the dif­fi­cul­ties in­ter­na­ti­o­nally renowned cho­reo­gra­phers will have when expected to work from a new con­cept and to col­la­bo­rate with a dra­ma­turge. In the case of The Sleeping Beauty it must in­clude every­thing ex­tant of Petipa’s ori­ginal cho­reo­gra­phy and it must be as pure as pos­sible. Sooner or later we’ll have to face this if we don’t want to fall back to a pre-Cranko stage of de­ve­lop­ment in Stutt­gart and else­where.

Ballet people are un­aware of how the pro­duc­tions of clas­sics could pro­fit from co­ope­ration with a pro­duc­tion dra­ma­turge. Indeed, the bal­let clas­sics still have to be re­vam­ped for con­tem­po­rary thea­ter. Only then will they be taken se­ri­ously on the in­tel­lec­tual level of the best pro­duc­tions of some­one like Giorgio Strehler, Peter Brook, or Peter Stein. This can hap­pen only when cho­reo­gra­phers fi­nally decide to call on ade­quate dra­ma­turges as col­la­bo­rators.

Com­pared to the in­no­va­tion of using dra­ma­turgy for bal­let clas­sics, as a sti­mu­lus for crea­ting new pie­ces it seems even more im­por­tant. In that, Cranko was de­fi­ni­tely on the right track. he chose this path out of a tra­di­tional un­der­stan­ding of bal­let. He was the first Western choreographer of our time who realized the need to create new, program-filling works. The results were Onegin, The Taming of the Shrew, and Carmen. There is no doubt that he would have continued on this path, in which case what kind of works might have emerged had he cooperated with a dedicated dramaturge who could have offered him options other than clinging to the literary original?

One is happy to see that Cranko avoided a straightforward reproduction of the Onegin plot at least once, with the so-called “mirror” pas de deux. Less fortunate was his device of having the two women participate in the Lenski-Onegin duel. No playwright or opera librettist would dare to be so unsophisticated today. But these were at least attempts, although they are no models for contemporary ballet, and for musical reasons, too. With all due respect for the effort involved in Kurt-Heinz Stolze’s [composer of Onegin and other Cranko ballets] Tchaikovsky and Scarlatti potpourris, artistically they are not worth mentioning.

When Diaghilev and Massine dis­co­vered Pergolesi’s music in ar­chives in Naples, scores that had been to­tally for­gotten, Diaghilev com­mis­sioned Stra­vin­sky to com­pose a new score for Pulcinella. It emer­ged, des­pite all of Per­go­lesi’s in­spi­ra­tion, as an ab­so­lu­tely dis­tinc­tive Stra­vin­sky bal­let score that has pro­ven its via­bi­lity apart from stage pro­duc­tions. Later, Stra­vin­sky dealt simi­larly with Tchai­kov­sky for Le Baiser de la Fée.

Who can ima­gine the music of Onegin or The Taming of the Shrew as suites accep­table for the con­cert hall? More likely, Wolf­gang Fort­ner’s score for Cranko’s Carmen might be. Yet the Stutt­gart Theater was overly chal­len­ged by this score. Why, des­pite re­peated an­nounce­ments of re­vi­vals, have per­for­man­ces of this ballet been kept to an ab­so­lute minimum?

In aesthetics and dramaturgy the multiact Cranko ballets are stuck in the nineteenth century. It is an aesthetic that produced questionable works for opera like Gounod’s Faust, Thomas’ Hamlet, and Massenet’s Don Quichotte, but at least they came up with new music back then. Here, too, it is Neumeier who is on the way to taking a crucial step forward. Nobody should blame him for being extremely cautious in this by scheduling new combinations that consist of several pieces, yet reach for dramaturgical coherence.

Neumeier’s program in Frankfurt, “Pictures, 1, 2, 3,” pointed the way, so did his brilliant contraposition of Le Baiser de la Fée and Daphnis and Chloe as Nordic winter dream and Mediterranean summer exaltation. His equally adventurous and persuasive pairing of Gluck’s Don Juan with Sacre made sense as a rumination on the impossibility of love and its consequences. These two ballets suggested a step toward the mulitact, coherent form.

Then, there was his Meyerbeer-Schumann in Hamburg, a tremendous dramaturgical effort. It was only partially successful but did attempt to assemble existing material into a larger, new work of art. Neumeier made it a distinctive statement. Afterwards he moved sideways: Mahler’s Third Symphony to test this dramaturgical conquest of virgin soil with an unaltered piece of music of exorbitant dimension. One can only admire Neu­meier’s wis­dom, how he gra­du­ally ap­proa­ches the task of a the­ma­ti­cally co­he­rent, eve­ning-length bal­let to new music. That, of course, is the goal: a pro­gram-fil­ling work arising from the cho­reo­gra­pher’s col­la­bo­ration with a re­nowned com­poser of our time.

Why is there no­where an at­tempt, for ex­ample, to of­fer some bal­let equi­valent to what Bertolt Brecht and Franz Xaver Kroetz (I know that he has writ­ten no pro­gram-fil­ling piece up to now) or Harold Pinter and Edward Bond have to offer in spoken theater? It’s be­cause there are no bal­let dra­ma­turges ca­pa­ble of in­ven­ting com­pa­rable con­tent and form in col­la­bo­ration with cho­reo­gra­phers. But do we want to give up hope and resign ourselves forever to ballet lagging behind the dramaturgical progress of contemporary theater, and to persuade ourselves that this deficiency is compensated for by the choreographic contribution? For me, No, at least not yet.

Even during Cranko’s era I wasn’t satisfied with this. The crucial point of my criticism of Cranko is that his dramaturgy was stuck in the past. I cannot understand why a man with the education and the knowledge of Walter Erich Schäfer, who has a flair for development in contemporary theater, didn’t help Cranko out of this impasse. My reviews of Cranko have always been an attempt to lure him out of this dramaturgical attachment to the nineteenth century. Probably I asked too much of him. Presumably Cranko would have needed a dramaturge he trusted, the Diaghilev every choreographer could use. And in this I don’t exclude Balanchine, Ashton, Béjart, MacMillan, Grigorovich, and Neumeier – not even my friend Hans van Manen.

By the way, I consider van Manen an excellent dramaturge, in some respects ahead of Neumeier – not in terms of the multiact, thematically coherent form, which doesn’t interest him at the moment, or of needed revision of the classics – but in terms of clear and conclusive dramaturgy. For every piece, van Manen sets himself a new thematic and formal task, then realizes it with admirable logic.

I consider dramaturgy as necessary for anecdotal or dramatic storytelling. Van Manen in the single-act form he prefers is simple, clear, and straightforward in his dramaturgy. A shining example of this is the ballet Mutations, for which van Manen choreographed the film sequences, while Tetley was responsible for the stage choreography. The dramatic conception of integrating film and stage was van Manen’s and it’s a shame that it was overlooked, because Mutations was the first respectable nude ballet of the recent past.

For van Manen, a new ballet production is always linked with the dramaturgy, which has to be developed specifically for the piece and topic. He would profit from cooperation with a dramaturge, too, because of the pressure that would be lifted so that he could concentrate on choreographing. However, I don’t believe van Manen would agree with me, because for him dramaturgy and choreography are identical.

A lot of other choreographers will claim that this is the case for them too. Because they are their own dramaturges, they believe they need no further help. But there are very few choreographers able to think dramaturgically, at least like a Neumeier or van Manen who do think that way. Tetley, for example, could make clearer, more understandable, more reasonable and straightforward ballets if he collaborated with a dramaturge.

Un­doubtedly, though, he and most of his col­leagues don’t want this. They pre­fer to pose riddles because they don’t want the viewers to rea­lize that they have no­thing to say. To be clear and com­pre­hen­sible the crea­tor must be able to think clearly and un­der­stand the con­tent to be con­veyed. Tet­ley I con­sider to be an im­por­tant cho­reo­gra­pher but an ab­so­lu­tely awful dra­ma­turge, and so are many of his col­ leagues.

In addition to being the thin­ker-in-charge who ligh­tens the cho­reo­gra­pher’s pre­pa­ra­tory work­load, the dra­ma­turge should also be the pro­gram maker, the one who shapes the re­per­tory. This fun­ction I con­sider ex­tra­or­di­na­rily im­por­tant, which up to now hasn’t been rea­lized at all abroad, not even in such progressively oriented companies as Netherlands Dance Theater, Ballet Rambert, and London Contemporary Dance Theatre.

In our country, too, few people have understood this necessity, even during the course of Neumeier’s programs in Frankfurt and Hamburg. Such dramaturgy is needed to get away from a meaningless stringing together of unrelated pieces in a triple bill. But “ballet mixed pickles” is the daily fare everywhere.

It has been like this ever since Diaghilev introduced programs of several short ballets. To compile meaningful, correlated, and compatible ballets into a coherent program requires astuteness and imagination, talents that dis­tin­guish a dra­ma­turge. To build a pro­gram around a single com­poser might be the ea­siest ap­proach, like the Stra­vin­sky bal­let eve­nings one sees every­where and most re­cen­tly even in Wup­per­tal. How­ever, there, Gleede and Pina Bausch almost forced a the­matic con­nec­tion with their “Sacre du Printemps” title. Perhaps not every­body un­der­stood it im­me­di­ately, but Gleede gave con­vin­cing rea­sons for it in the play­bill.

Or take the “Hom­mage à Balan­chine” pro­gram of Balan­chine and Rob­bins at the Paris Opera or Béjart’s Boulez pro­gram at Bal­let of the 20th Century. Of course, such a the­ma­tic ap­proach quickly be­comes out­worn. Va­ria­tions are cer­tainly pos­sible, like Béjart’s “Suite Vien­noise,” in which he pre­sen­ted bal­lets to music by Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton von Webern.

Also conceivable are deliberate confrontations of composers of different periods. Why not Handel and Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky, cori spezzati (divided choirs) pieces of the Venetian School of Andrea Gabrieli and stereo- and quadrophonic pieces by Karlheinz Stockhausen? Why not certain groups like the composers of the Mannheim School or Les Six? One has to have imagination and knowledge. These are only a few principles for arangement, decidedly musical-dramaturgical. I cannot understand why Düsseldorf, with one of the world’s highest quality ballet-music repertories, doesn’t work more deliberately in this direction.

Yet, preserve us from such programs. After all, a ballet stage is not a dissatisfied concert hall, where dovetailed concert programs are also rare. Neumeier showed that it could be different, that thematic and dramatic links are possible, like his programs with collective titles, “Invisible Boundaries” and “Pictures 1, 2, 3,” or his contrasting winter-summer bill of Le Baiser de la Fée and Daphnis and Chloe or his two variations on the impossibility of love in Don Juan and Sacre. All this should only hint at achieving – even in a program of several pieces – a thematically coherent statement instead of those balletic mixed pickles.

There has to be imagination, and if the choreographer isn’t capable of it, there has to be a dramaturge to make this special program concept comprehensible in workshop performances and in the playbill. It would no longer be possible simply to replace one ballet with another, but this is the least problem in our celebrity-centered scheduling.

As for the public benefits of dramaturgy, which should be a service for the audience, it has degenerated to the mere production of playbills and all kinds of flyers, offering not even correct information for the ballet and, because of the sheer inability to say anything about ballet per se, seeking refuge in making wordy, music-theory remarks.

Public relations for dramaturgy are necessary. There are specific tasks regarding ballet dramaturgy, and anyone interested in what can be accomplished should be aware of the Hamburg State Opera’s and Dance Forum Cologne’s workshops and information events. The other type should disappear.

Then there is dramaturgy’s function in regard to repertory. Basically, it is an extension and continuation of program dramaturgy: long-term design of the repertory, aimed at giving the schedule of a company an individual stamp by highlighting specific works. This depends on the choreographers and their choreographies. New York City Ballet, with its all-Balanchine and all-Robbins programs, is naturally the example par excellence. In a somehow different way this is also true of Béjart in Brussels and Neumeier in Hamburg. To a certain extent it was the case at the Stuttgart Ballet during the Cranko era. There can be no talk of this at The Royal Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet, La Scala, or American Ballet Theatre, despite the MacMillan emphasis among the English.

Obviously the em­pha­ses of the sche­dule fol­low the de­sig­nated cho­reo­gra­phers. In ad­di­tion to the chief or re­si­dent cho­reo­gra­pher, a few com­ple­men­tary guest cho­reo­gra­phers should be en­gaged – re­pea­tedly en­ga­ged – instead of coming up re­pea­tedly with new guests, only because one of them was suc­ces­sful else­where or their name is the flavor of the month.

In this regard Cranko pur­sued a very heal­thy and also a dra­ma­tur­gic policy by aug­men­ting his own bal­lets with oc­ca­sional con­tri­bu­tions by Ba­lan­chine and Mac­Millan and no one else. I ab­so­lu­tely cannot dis­cover a common thread or any sense or dra­ma­tur­gic pur­pose in the policy of the bal­let reper­tory at Deutsche Oper Berlin, Bavarian State Opera, and Vienna State Opera up to now. In West Berlin, Gert Reinholm’s aim seems to be to welcome into the Deutsche Oper a diaspora of St. Petersburg ballet classicism.

Here in Stuttgart, the policy appears determined by neither dramaturgic nor other identifiable guidelines. It only proceeds from one premiere to the next, neglecting the classics. However, I’m surprised at how the dancers and audience resign themselves readily to this, instead of pressuring the directorate to change this unacceptable situation.

Admittedly, the repertory of a big ballet company is preprogrammed to a large extent with the classics, with pieces by one or more resident choreographers or by amicably associated guest choreographers. For Stuttgart I wish there could be occasional attempts to restore a historical piece, like Asthon did with with La Fille Mal Gardée or The Two Pigeons. I can imagine similar attempts with ballets by Jean-Georges Noverre or Étienne Lauchery in Stuttgart, Ludwigsburg, or Schwetzigen, or a whole series of such attractive historical highlights, not only for the Stuttgart area, but also for Munich, Berlin, and, of course, for Vienna.

Historical know­ledge is nee­ded for this and that’s exac­tly what most of today’s cho­reo­gra­phers lack. They can reach back at best to the Don Quixote pas de deux and Giselle. An em­pha­sis such as Bonn places on its con­tinu­ously cared-for Bour­non­ville re­per­tory is an ex­cep­tion. Even there, a dra­ma­turge with his­to­rical know­ledge could give the bal­let direc­torate, the cho­reo­gra­pher, and the bal­let master con­si­derable help.

I dream of a dra­ma­turge who develops with a cho­reo­gra­pher an en­tirely new form of bal­let, cap­turing each time a very spe­cific and pre­cisely dated social climate at a de­fined geo­gra­phi­cal place – such as Roland Petit de­line­ated in Les Inter­mit­tences du Coeur, which deals with the de­ca­dent Pari­sian so­ci­ety of the sa­lons in the fin de siècle sur­roun­ding Marcel Proust. This comes full cir­cle back to pro­duc­tion dra­ma­turgy.

So there are plenty of tasks for ballet dramaturgy, even if it doesn’t exist. Right now there is no ballet dramaturgy used deliberately as an instrument to support the ballet and finally force it to grow up and develop its inherent potential. Naturally, it is much more convenient simply to live for the moment, from one performance to another, from one premiere to the next, and to let things slide by. I’m still convinced that ballet has yet to discover the chances open to it in the concerted ensemble of the contemporary arts. Dramaturgy could crucially aid in this progress, even if some people consider it only the figment of a frustrated ballet critic’s imagination.

____________________________________________________

A note on Horst Koegler (1927 – 2012) by translator Ilona Landgraf:

Koegler's opinion of John Cranko changed over the years. He later watched Onegin with much delight and the Tchaikovsky potpourri was no longer a thorn in his side. I'm sure that he would also have revised his statement about choreographing at a desk at home rather than together with dancers in the studio, where the main creative process takes place.

____________________________________________________

The text was published first in Ballet Review, 42.1, Spring 2014.

  1. Ensemble of the Nederlands Dans Theatre, “Mutations” by Hans van Manen and Glen Tetley, May 11, 12 and 13, 1973,  © Islington Local History Centre, Finsbury Library

Choreographies by John Neumeier (by courtesy of the John Neumeier Foundation, Hamburg)

  1. Marianne Kruuse (Marie) and Truman Finney (Günther), “The Nutcracker” by John Neumeier, Ballet Frankfurt, 1971, © John Neumeier Foundation, Hamburg
  2. Maximo Barra, Marianne Kruuse (Marie), Truman Finney, Max Midinet (Drosselmeier), “The Nutcracker” by John Neumeier, Ballet Frankfurt, 1971, © John Neumeier Foundation, Hamburg
  3. Truman Finney (second from left), Maximo Barra (fifth from left) and ensemble, “Daphnis and Chloe” by John Neumeier, Ballet Frankfurt, 1972, © German Theater Museum Munich, Archive Fritz Peyer
  4. Marianne Kruuse, “Daphnis and Chloe” by John Neumeier, Ballet Frankfurt, 1972, © German Theater Museum Munich, Archive Fritz Peyer
  5. Fred Howald (Don Juan Tenorio) and Persephone Samaropoulo (The Woman in White), “Don Juan” by John Neumeier, Ballet Frankfurt, 1972, © Günther Englert, Frankfurt
  6. Max Midinet (Catalonón), Marianne Kruuse (Aminta), Fred Howald (Don Juan Tenorio), “Don Juan” by John Neumeier, Ballet Frankfurt, 1972, © Günther Englert, Frankfurt
  7. Fred Howald (Don Juan Tenorio) and Persephone Samaropoulo (The Woman in White), “Don Juan” by John Neumeier, Ballet Frankfurt, 1972, © Günther Englert, Frankfurt
  8. Fred Howald, Maximo Barra and Persephone Samaropoulo, “Le Baiser de la Fée” by John Neumeier, 1972, © Günther Englert, Frankfurt
  9. Persephone Samaropoulo and Fred Howald, “Le Baiser de la Fée” by John Neumeier, 1972, © Günther Englert, Frankfurt
  10. Beatrice Cordua (The Chosen One), “Le Sacre” by John Neumeier, Ballet Frankfurt, 1972, © Günther Englert, Frankfurt
  11. Max Midinet, “Le Sacre” by John Neumeier, Ballet Frankfurt, 1972, © Günther Englert, Frankfurt
  12. Max Midinet and ensemble, “Meyerbeer” by John Neumann, Ballet Frankfurt, 1974, © German Theater Museum Munich, Archive Fritz Peyer

 

How to become a librettist, by Stephen Plaice

The Guardian: Tuesday 24 February 2015 16.30 GMT Last modified on Tuesday 14 February 2017 18.45 GMT

What is the librettist’s role in opera? The job is much more than creating the words to go with the music. Usually, the librettist produces the substantive ideas that inspire the composition, including the dramatic structure, characters and scenario of the opera. This role was obscured at the end of the 19th century when, post-Wagner, opera houses and audiences began to see the musical drama as the sole product of the composer’s imagination.

The status of the librettist declined and the role was largely picked up by those who had little experience in the medium and scant knowledge of opera dramaturgy. Whereas until the end of the 19th century there were writers practiced in the art of libretto writing and thoroughly schooled in the repertoire, in the 20th century, it was left in the hands of dilettantes.

There were some notable exceptions: WH Auden, for example, who knew and loved opera and understood how distinct libretto was from poetry. Benjamin Britten – because he had such a great understanding of musical dramatic structure – was very discerning in his choice of librettists, even if he didn’t always remain loyal to them. Aspiring librettists should acquaint themselves with Britten’s work if they want to understand modern operatic storytelling.

In the 21st century there are signs that the status of the librettist is being revalued, and that a generation of writers is emerging with a renewed understanding of the dramatic requirements of the genre. But how does one become a librettist today?

Where to start

Opera is experiencing a fringe explosion, both in Europe and the US. Always a medium slow to embrace change, opera now has its own counterculture, 50 years after the advent of the fringe in straight theatre. In the past 10 years, new companies have sprung up like topsy.

Once you have found a like-minded composer and developed a treatment together, try to identify a company you might approach with the idea. This means going to see their work first. Don’t submit on spec.

Opera is very collegiate. Go to open-workshop performances, like those run by Mahogany Opera Group, and join in the post-show discussions. You need to make these connections. The Tête à Tête Festival, held annually in London, commissions and showcases new work, and genuinely fosters first-time writers and composers.

Don’t get too depressed in the first stage and orchestra rehearsal, when you hear your favourite line has disappeared

Enlightened opera house education departments and music academies occasionally offer short courses – such as the Jerwood opera-writing course run by Aldeburgh Music every four years – which pair up composers new to opera with writers keen to explore the genre. Now the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, in conjunction with the Royal Opera House, is offering a one-year intensive MA within which the students are similarly paired to create a chamber opera for public performance. The course follows, as closely as possible, a professional production process, from page to stage, and encounters all the difficulties inherent in the process.

Poetic, but not poetry

If you try to read librettos as poems or plays you will be disappointed. They will appear thin and often prosaic. They are not intended to stand alone as works or art; they have to be seen in the context they serve. A skilled librettist will know how to leave space for the music to flourish. To see how libretto works, you should see and hear as much repertoire as you can. Opera has traditions that must be understood before you can break the mould.

Brevity is to be cultivated wherever possible. “How wordy you are … use few words … few, few but significant,” Giuseppe Verdi wrote to his librettist Francesco Maria Piave. It is a plea almost every opera composer will recognise. Nothing will demotivate a composer more than a 100-page script dropping into his or her inbox. Successful librettists must learn to edit themselves ruthlessly and always serve the development of the character and the story. In short: deploy wit, not alliteration.

I’m often asked: should text always be comprehensible to the audience in opera? Some composers use text simply as the catalyst for composition, but most take care to make text comprehensible. Like so many other aspects of opera, text combined with music involves compromise. Don’t get too depressed in the first stage and orchestra rehearsal when you hear your favourite line has disappeared behind the blare of the brass section.

Use few words … few but significant - Giuseppe Verdi

Another frequently asked question is whether a librettist is involved in the production process itself. Opera houses encompass huge endeavour, so learn how the house works and what jobs people do in it. You may be one of the creatives, but to everyone else you are another cog in the machine. In early rehearsals, you need to be on hand to clarify the intention of your characters and plot – even mundane things like pronunciation. Singers and directors are very grateful for this.

Opera is a cruel medium for composers and writers because you have to get it right so far in advance. Once everything has been set and orchestrated, very little can be changed. Come dress rehearsal, dead librettists are vastly preferred to living ones who have just spotted a line they would like to change.

But when you and the production get it right – when your words are sung and your scenes and characters engage an audience and move them to tears and laughter – it’s the most exhilarating experience a dramatist can enjoy.

Stephen Plaice is writer-in-residence at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama

Join our community of arts, culture and creative professionals by signing up free to the Guardian Culture Pros Network.

Donec id justo non metus auctor commodo ut quis enim. Mauris fringilla dolor vel condimentum imperdiet.
— Hope K.

 

 

Another frequently asked question is whether a librettist is involved in the production process itself. Opera houses encompass huge endeavour, so learn how the house works and what jobs people do in it. You may be one of the creatives, but to everyone else you are another cog in the machine. In early rehearsals, you need to be on hand to clarify the intention of your characters and plot – even mundane things like pronunciation. Singers and directors are very grateful for this.

Opera is a cruel medium for composers and writers because you have to get it right so far in advance. Once everything has been set and orchestrated, very little can be changed. Come dress rehearsal, dead librettists are vastly preferred to living ones who have just spotted a line they would like to change.

But when you and the production get it right – when your words are sung and your scenes and characters engage an audience and move them to tears and laughter – it’s the most exhilarating experience a dramatist can enjoy.

Stephen Plaice is writer-in-residence at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama

Join our community of arts, culture and creative professionals by signing up free to the Guardian Culture Pros Network.

The Sky Broke Like An Egg

Drought has always been a part of the African life: between the dry climate in most of the continent and the scarcity of fresh water supplies, sub-Saharan Africa has the most water-stressed countries in the world. The continent hosts two of earth’s largest deserts: the Sahara and the Kalahari.

The Sahara covers parts of Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Eritrea, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Sudan, Tunisia, and Western Sahara, spanning over 9,400,000 square kilometers (3,600,000 sq miles), comparable to the entire land mass of USA and China, making it the world’s largest hot desert, and is home to around 2.5 million people.

Libya

Not surprisingly then, the supply of fresh water is a constant priority. In 1953, in their search for new oilfields, the Libyan government discovered vast quantities of fresh water in four aquifers, trapped in the strata underlying oil reserves. This fossilized water is considered to be between 7,000 and 38,000 years old. When Muammar Gaddafi came to power, he launched an ambitious plan to create what Libyans called the eighth wonder of the world: the Great Man-Made River Project (GMRP). Gaddafi understood that being able to provide his people with potable water meant further independence from developmental colonialism, and an opportunity to build an infrastructure that would guarantee life to the Libyan people. No loans were needed, and construction began in 1984.

It may have seemed to some around the world the dream of a megalomaniac, but to Gaddafi, access to drinking water was a basic human right, and in a country that seldom sees rain (seldom in this case being every 5 to 10 years), providing water to Libyans was not merely a way to garner their support; it was essential to survival.

By 2011, three phases had been completed, supplying water to regions around Benghazi, Sirte, Tripoli, and the western belt of Libya. A 4,000 kilometer network of pipes, buried below the desert to prevent evaporation, allowed irrigation of around 155,000 hectares of land. The changes to people’s quality of life was marked.

The damage done to this project by NATO bombing in March 2011, where the factory manufacturing the concrete pipes was destroyed as well as parts of the actual water supply system, is untold. While many consider the bombing a war crime, as it directly impacts infrastructure on which civilians depend for their survival, NATO defended the destruction, saying, “The factory is being used to hide military material, including multiple rocket launchers. These weapons have been used every day from within this factory compound and then carefully hidden after the day within the factory buildings and the area.” To date, no evidence of this subterfuge has been presented.

Prior to the GMRP, Libya was in danger of losing all its water: coastal aquifers which had been supplying the country with potable water were becoming contaminated with encroaching sea water as levels rise due to global warming. The GMRP was thus seen not only as the incredible hydro-electric achievement it undoubtedly was, but in the long-term, a way for the Libyan people to survive. What had not been discussed is how long those fossilized aquifers would last.

In an interview with MIPJ correspondent, Sean Mullan, the Founding Director of the Center For Climate Security Francesco Femia said, “It’s a massive extraction project: they’re sucking out water so fast and that’s going to be a significant problem.  … the rate of extraction is so great that we’re going to see some serious water stress. …but for short term service provision of water, which led to some short term political benefit for the Gadhafi Regime while it did that, and while it was implementing the manmade river project, it seemed like a great, fantastic idea, but it’s not sustainable and so that has to be recognized and alleviated at some point.”

In 2012, the British Geological Survey and University College London released a report mapping the aquifers across the continent, and found large sedimentary resources under Libya, Algeria, Egypt and Sudan. Accessibility, however, is limited as some of the water is at very deep levels and the cost of the deep drilling technology required to access many of these supplies can prove almost prohibitive for nations already struggling with their development. The sites of shallow water make hand pumps more feasible, as commercial extraction would likely do more damage to the aquifers.

Egypt

Egypt is another dry country in transition: facing a growing population and looking for the development that brings longer lifespans, and also wanting to move away from independence on food imports. Once considered the Roman Empire’s bread basket, Egypt now imports around 50% of its food.

Encouraging farmers to literally “make the desert bloom”, however, requires ambitious irrigation. Like Gaddafi, former Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak tried to install an agricultural project in southern Egypt, not far from the Sudanese border. It failed under the weight of poor planning and an inability to attract investors. The new President el-Sisi has shown some determination in renewing the project, to deep cynicism from his fellow Egyptians.

In his article, “Farming the Sahara”, published at Takepart.com, January 8, 2016 , Cairo-based reporter Peter Schwartzstein writes: “In the stretch of desert around the Farafra and Bahariya oases, 200-plus miles southwest of Cairo, the government aims to convert sand into soil. But the most obvious problem with the plan is that the scheme relies to a large degree on groundwater reserves that some experts doubt even exist. Egypt is among the most rain-deprived countries on Earth, and with no waterways, save the distant Nile, crisscrossing the arid hinterland, everything will have to be extracted from beneath the sands.”

The large underground aquifer is fossil water and therefore not renewable, and it wouldn’t take long to drain it if used for agricultural irrigation purposes. And then there’s the issue of who wants to move to the desert and struggle to be a farmer in almost impossible conditions?

Schwartzstein: “Suleiman Mohammed Nour, one of the relative few to have relocated to Toshka, where he oversees a team of laborers pruning and picking date palms on the Kadco farm, says a combination of financial and cultural concerns keep his former neighbors in the Nile Valley from following in his footsteps.

“For most of them, the day rate is insufficient,” he said, stooping to check for snakes and scorpions in the long grass. “And then we have our maxim: Go to the delta for a year, and don’t spend a day in the desert.” The government has hastily boosted necessary amenities in parts of the Western Desert, such as improving roads to reduce travel times and expanding subsidized housing in existing settlements, but many Egyptians might be just too wed to the river to stray far into the sands.”

Make that: infertile sands.

Heart of Africa; heart of dryness

In his excellent book, “The Heart of Dryness: How the Last Bushmen Can Help Us Endure the Coming Age Of Permanent Drought”, James Workman writes:

“To help me appreciate the deep extent to which water governed human lives in this dry and unforgiving landscape, anthropologist (Robert) Hitchcock had me consider the nuances embedded in language. It may or may not be true that Inuit people of the arctic have dozens of different names for ‘ice’ and ‘snow,’ but Kalahari researchers documented how various bands of Bushmen used the following words for water and the term to suck:

Water: /qhaa

Water: g!u, dohmsoan (ka)

Water Acacia: /oa’//g!u!’an (ka)

Water bag: /guug!u/haian (ha)

Water course: /nau, /num

Water storing tree: oggo

Water that has collected in the hollow of a tree: g!u!’an (ka)

To Water a garden (verb): tczq

To Make water proof: thobo

Water-hole: g!u-n!ang (ka)

Water-hole connected to a pan by a furrow: g//ae (ha)

Water in one’s eyes: tcaq

Water bottle: g!utan (ka)

Well: tsaho

Well (pit): !’han

Sip: kx’aha; dyshxo’la (avoiding dregs)

Sip (hot liquid): sam or tcam

Sip (cold liquid): qom

Suck: //’ube; qum; /oy/i (-and dissolve)

Suck /qhulu (slurp moisture through a small puncture)

Suck out: //oho

Suck out through a straw – blood: goo

Suck out water and transfer to a container: txhxole

Suck out water from an egg or water tree: Ooumi

These suggest the myriad ways and the careful extent to which Bushmen restrained themselves, restricted access, wasted nothing, sought out, hunted down and trapped water as soon as it formed…. Bushmen stored as much as possible, out of sight, sealing off dozens and even hundreds of reservoirs in secret, small and decentralized containers, hidden away from the two most relentless threats to water: the sun above, and the sand below.“

When you live in one of the driest places on earth, you quickly learn the true value of water.

This knowledge may assist in storing the liquid one finds, but the problem is exacerbated when El Nino hits, and in 2015, following the 2014 drought that saw millions across East African nations impacted by food insecurity, the potentially record-breaking system visited sub-Saharan Africa, catching leaders off guard, and bringing the much needed rainfall to arid regions. Ordinarily, on a continent generally short of water, rainfall should be welcomed, but with the earth so parched and unable to cope with the unexpected levels of saturation, the one guaranteed result is flooding – and with that comes crop devastation, and livestock deaths. Already, there has been an increase in food prices due to food shortages, and increasing migration of people away from farming areas towards the cities means greater socio-economic pressures on all, especially on governments generally unable to plan or spend massive amounts on infrastructure ala Gaddafi.

While Kenya, Tanzania, and other parts of East Africa mops up, South Africa gasps for breath.

Six of South Africa’s nine provinces have been hit hard, with three declared disaster areas. In southern Africa, El Nino events are usually associated with dry weather, and as ocean temperatures are warmer than usual creating extreme weather events, the lack of rainfall in a country that is able to produce its own food, is devastating. Dry weather makes the soil dry out, increasing the chances of heat waves, compounding the existing drought conditions. Ordinarily, El Nino would recede towards late summer, in February, but experts are predicting this one is going to stick around – making recovery that much more difficult.

Zimbabwe has already reported the deaths of over 1,000 head of cattle, a shortage of pastures, and inadequate water supplies.

Situated between Zimbabwe and Zambia is the aging Kariba Dam, the world’s largest man-made lake and water reservoir, which provides power to around half of each country, is currently at 12% capacity. If it doesn’t rain soon, the price of electricity increases, and an already strapped Zimbabwe will face new economic pressures. If it does rain soon, and flooding occurs, the Kariba Dam is in danger of collapsing, sending a tsunami through the Zambezi Valley, towards Mozambique, putting millions of lives at risk. If it overwhelms the Cahora-Bassa Dam in Mozambique, it will knock out almost half the power supply to southern Africa. The Zambezi Water Authority has raised a large portion of the money needed to repair the dam, with work commencing in early 2016. The locals hope it’s completed in time.

For a report on how a South African community is dealing with the drought and water shortage, read Keith Schneider’s report in Volume 1 of 'PERSPECTIVE: AFRICA'

Beyond the Thirst

According to a new WHO report, and based on the latest UN figures, the WHO estimates 60 million people in third world and developing countries will be impacted by El Niño this year with many suffering health consequences.

The flooding in eastern Africa raises the risk of cholera outbreaks, and more than 12,000 cases have already been reported in Tanzania, making it the largest since the previous El Niño system when over 40,000 cases were reported.

There is little need to consider the health impacts as all doom and gloom – preventative steps can be taken to mitigate the El Nino effects and WHO is geared up to work with governments and the regional health sectors to support emergency measures.

In 1758 Benjamin Franklin wrote, “When the well’s dry, they know the worth of water.”

This Has To Be Remembered

MARIKANA: the word is now part of the lexicon of history: the remote area that saw the bloodiest use of force by the South African Police against the people since the Soweto uprisings in 1976.

Marikana, also known as “Rooikoppies” (Red hills), is a town between Rustenberg and Johannesburg, and forms part of the Bushveld Igneous Complex, colloquially known as the “Platinum Belt”, of South Africa. Through 2 billion years of molten rock being forced to the surface through long vertical cracks in the earth, the area has some of the richest ore deposits in the world – platinum, palladium, iron, titanium, tin, are just some of the metals that are produced here.

South Africa accounts for 80% of the world’s platinum deposits, and because of its scarcity, only a few hundred tonnes are produced annually for commodities as diverse as silicone rubber and gel components, medical prosthetics, and jewelry.

One of the largest mining corporations in the area is Lonmin. Originally formed in 1909 as “Lonrho” – London and Rhodesian Mining and Land Company Limited – they split into two companies in 1998 with Lonmin focusing its attention on mining the riches of South Africa, with Marikana their flagship operation. Claiming a commitment to “zero harm and the environment” on their website, that rang false in August 2012.

What began as a wildcat strike became a complicated and violent confrontation – and speaks to a deeper issue that has plagued South Africa, and many other countries, regarding workers’ rights and trade unions.

During apartheid, the organization most involved with fighting the system was the African National Congress. Formed in 1912, and banned from 1960, days after the Sharpeville Massacre, until 1990 (although it and its members, including Nelson Mandela, remained on the US Terrorist Watch List until 2008), the ANC found itself needing a legal partner inside the country. COSATU – the Congress of South African Trade Unions – was an affiliation of 21 trade unions, with 1,8 million workers, and formed part of a strategic alliance with the ANC and the South African Communist Party to work towards political transformation.

Born in 1952, Ramaphosa had graduated with a law degree, and started work representing the National Council of Trade Unions, and a year after that, in 1982, was asked to form the National Union of Mineworkers. The NUM won a major victory in 1983 by ending job reservation, which guaranteed the higher paying jobs went to whites in the era of apartheid.

As COSATU’s first General-Secretary, his profound skills as a negotiator, strategist, and leader built membership from 6,000 to 300,000 in ten years. His role in negotiations to end apartheid and bring about the first democratic elections in 1994 went a long way towards being considered a possible successor to President Nelson Mandela. Despite being passed over in favor of Thabo Mbeki, his ambitions have never wavered.

As a businessman his interests are wide and global, and he is one of the country’s richest men with a wealth purported to be around $675 million.

He is also on the Lonmin board. And that is important to remember as the events of Marikana unfolded.

I spoke to Rehad Desai, director of the exceptional documentary, “Miners Shot Down”, who told me, “The Trade Unions were indeed a powerful force for motivating change in the move towards democracy, but what we saw is what people have called the “triangle of torment”: communications between union and management are bureaucratized so leaders of the trade unions are forced to discipline their membership to keep them in line with their agreement, in return for the employers holding their line – and in return the employers ensuring that all their side meet the agreement.

“Now, the deeper thing was the – in (South Africa’s period of) transition – the alliance with the trade unions as far as the ANC goes was really premised on the ability for them to tamper wage demands- to ensure that wage demands that were over and above the inflation rates or productivity were not demanded; that trade unions start taking responsibility for an economy which they had no control over. This was the beginning of the problems and so you saw the unions getting very close to management – far too close, particularly in the case of the NUM where they’re labelled by mineworkers as the National Union of Management. They’ve really become an extension of management and not much more.”

I asked Rehad if the changes we saw in Ramaphosa were a result of his being “in the establishment” too long, and perhaps forgetting his roots as a representative of the people.

“I think the issue of Cyril Ramaphosa is a complex one – certainly he’s had huge investments in Lonmin, hundreds of millions of Rands – and he was seeking to protect them, and I think this typifies the arrangements of politically connected individuals and businessmen with these corporations: where they seek out such people in order to provide a level of protection to attempt to guarantee their economic and political interests, and they saw it fit to turn their backs on their workers, to stop negotiating, even though that’s against their own stated policy, and criminalise this strike.

“But there are also political considerations that I think stood at the forefront of Cyril Ramaphosa’s mind and that is the fact that his baby, the NUM, certainly then the most powerful union in COSATU, is an important ally in the alliance – the contrived alliance – with the ANC, and that was being increasingly questioned in the run-up to Marikana. Certainly we’ve seen what’s happened post-Marikana. But the fact that 21 000 workers 6 months prior had signaled their decision to leave the NUM following the strike which happened at the second biggest platinum producer in the world and in South Africa, Implats (Impala Platinum), they were worried that this would happen at Lonmin and spread further on to Anglo American – the largest platinum producer.

“Now in total, this is the Crown Prince of the mining sector and they represent 100 000 workers – that would have seen the loss of 100 000 members from the NUM to the other union on the block – the new kid on the block, so to speak. That’s a third of their membership and represents a severe weakening of their membership and the ANC’s presence inside the trade union movement and I think in hindsight, maybe this was the consideration that was pushing Ramaphosa, rather than simply his money. This is the consideration which allowed him to justify his intervention with the Minister of Police and the Minister of Water Resources – both of them who, in political terms inside the African National Congress, were his juniors.”

AUGUST 2012

On August 10, 2012, rock drillers – the job usually reserved for the unskilled, illiterate, and under-educated – initiated a strike in protest of low wages. Rock drillers were paid an average of aroundZAR12 500 a month, at the time worth roughly $500, and they demanded to meet with mine management to discuss an increase.

Poverty breeds anger and resentment. The Bench Marks Foundation, a non-profit, faith-based organization owned by South African churches, lobbies and monitors social responsibility in the corporate sector, basing their standards on the international, “Principles for Global Corporate Responsibility”, commented after the events at Marikana: "The benefits of mining are not reaching the workers or the surrounding communities. Lack of employment opportunities for local youth, squalid living conditions, unemployment and growing inequalities contribute to this mess.”

Critical of the ongoing exploitation and low wages of the miners, they warned about the dangers the workers faced, including significant health hazards, proclaiming “something is very wrong with mining” and warning about the potentially dire consequences of an unequal distribution of wealth.

Certainly, South Africa’s memory doesn’t need to be long to remember what upheavals that can wring from society. Apartheid was a system of inequality and founded originally on economic distribution towards the white Afrikaner, before it extended to whites generally.

Miner and strike leader, Tholakele Dlunga says in the film, “We were complaining that rock drill operators only earn R4 000 a month. We should at least get an increase looking at the work we do. But we know our employer. He won’t have the exact amount we’re demanding. Whatever he offers, we’ll negotiate on that, because we have very little money.”

After being turned away by the company’s security when attempting to approach another mine to encourage workers who belonged to a competitor union, AMCU (Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union) to join the strike, around 3,000 workers headed to the local offices of the NUM, staffed by around 30 union workers, shop stewards, and officials.

A survivor of the massacre, Mzoxolo Magidiwana, explains, “What made us angry as Lonmin workers was the hypocrisy of the union we elected. We were fed up because they were not pushing our demands, especially for wages, and we decided to go sort it out ourselves, as Lonmin workers.”

As the strikers approached the NUM offices, the union staff started shooting at them, without warning, from inside the building. The men dispersed, with one driller testifying to the Commission of Enquiry, “As I was walking through passages of the hostel, I felt my back turn cold. I tried to run and told the guys I was with that I had been shot.” NUM has insisted it was acting in self-defense.

The NUM shooting at its members was shocking enough, but then the politicians stepped in, including Cyril Ramaphosa. For a person with his background, having spent much of his life fighting for workers’ rights, it came as a surprise that when called on to get involved, he instead distanced himself from the workers, calling the strike, “dastardly criminal.”

Between the 12th and 13th of August, 8 mine workers were injured; two mine security officers killed by the protesters; 3 mineworkers killed in a skirmish with police that also leaves 2 policemen killed and 1 injured.

In Desai’s documentary, containing extraordinary footage of the events that unfolded that week, one of the moments that stays with the audience is of the miners returning to the koppie – a small rocky hill they had deemed their sanctuary –armed with their traditional weapons of pangas and sticks. They are stopped by police, led by General Mpembe, the Deputy Commissioner of the North West Province, who pleads with the miners to put down their weapons – never a match for sophisticated arms or bullets, but rather a badge of traditional courage – in order to return to the koppie. The miners are adamant: “We’re not fighting with anyone. We just want to get to the mountain.” One worker points out that when they went to their union representatives, they were shot at.

In a quite remarkable show of submission and respect, the workers, all kneeling or sitting on the ground, their weapons down as the police surround them, a strike leader addresses the General, “My elder, you are genuine police. We are from Lonmin, we are trying to fix our financial problems. We work underground. We are not fighting with anyone. We are just trying to solve something.”

I asked Desai about the inherent, fundamental certainty of the workers at this point.

“It’s clear that the miners were ready to hand over their weapons and cooperate with the police but they wanted to do that at the koppie. Someone says - I think it’s Antonio Gramsci - that everyone is a philosopher whether you’re educated or not. These worker leaders were chosen because they have intuition – they’re naturally intelligent. Education and intelligence don’t necessarily go hand in hand, and yes, they know their rights when it comes to strikes. They knew that they were embarking on a strike – an unprotected strike – which could have seen them dismissed.

“They believed that they could independently achieve more – which they had been doing for over the course of the last years prior to the massacre. Their defiance, their willingness, the bravery that it took to continue that strike, despite the huge numbers of arrests and killings that took place on the 16th, I think, is a standout characteristic of the determination and the courage and human tenacity in the face of a giant corporation, in the face of a hostile government, and hostile majority trade union.”

Magidiwana tells Desai in the film, “Black workers are exploited. We work like slaves, even our fathers were rockdrillers. Either they die or go back home still as rockdrillers.  Poverty forces you to forget your ambition, leave school and work as a rockdriller at the same mine, where your boss will be the son of your father’s boss.”

At this point, Lonmim has spent massive amounts of money on expanding their operations, and is financially vulnerable, so talk of higher wages is seen as a threat to their very existence, and they resist the workers requests to talk. They also could not afford a massive, extended strike, and with no rock drillers, there will be no platinum. On the day of the massacre, Lonmin, in a somewhat tone-deaf statement, complains that it has lost six days of production, or 15 000 ounces of platinum, and will be unable to meet target of 750 000 ounces by year end.

It remains somewhat unclear as to the level of collusion between police, political and union leaders, and Lonmin, with all claiming no responsibility to what happened next.

By August 14, ten people had died, with no clear idea who had the guns, apart from the police.

NUM’s competitor, AMCU, led by Jeffrey Matunjwa, whose members had joined the strike days earlier, stepped in to play a pivotal role in trying to ease the tensions and end the strike, but on 16 August, it all came to a head.

It remains unclear who gave the order to send in 4,000 rounds of live ammunition to the police stationed at the site. Nor was there a clear answer when reporters asked why coroners vans had arrived, but no ambulances were there. To this day, nobody has admitted to giving the order to fire on the workers, but what does seem clear is that the mine, and the police, were determined to bring things to an end.

Police vehicles started to herd the miners marching back to the koppie into a razor-wired temporary corral. And at that point, things went horrible wrong.

One eyewitness says some strikers were crushed by the vehicles, and chaos ensued as the shooting began. Police reports say someone, a worker, fired a gun at them, although it’s impossible to say whether that was proven, or whether such gun was ever found. What is known, and the video evidence is clear, is that the police fired on workers running from charging vehicles, teargas, and confusion, into a hail of bullets.

17 men were killed at the scene, pushed by the vehicles towards the armed police, and into a situation which if managed differently, could perhaps easily have resulted in arrests being made with no loss of life. But the chaos continued, and 17 more miners who had already found their way to the koppie, were later found dead from bullets fired at close range.  The relatively few shells found after the dust had settled indicated that this was not a scene of extended fire, but looked more like the miners had been assassinated, one a time.

The documentary includes almost everything that happened during that week. I asked Desai about the extraordinary amount of footage available.

“Well, we got footage from wherever we could. The police had to, by regulation, film everything. They didn’t or much of the stuff that they did was certainly disposed of – it was not handed over to the Commission of Inquiry, but they had to hand over something, they had to. So, a lot of footage was police footage. Lonmin wanting to distance themselves from this police operation, which in many ways they led, also handed over footage to show policemen out of control – and particularly in the instance of the railway line on the 13th.

“The key footage that shows the mine workers leaving peacefully from the koppie – contrary to the police’s narrative which claimed they were attacked twice - I managed to argue quite vociferously with Al Jazeera to release that to me, which they did and which I then handed over to the Commission of Inquiry and the local and international press. That helped shift the narrative from one of police acting in self-defense to one of a police ambush and plan to violently break the strike. There were other sources of footage from Reuters and SABC – it took some time to get into SABC to get everything I needed.”

The shockwaves that rippled through the country put pressure on President Zuma to appoint a Commission of Inquiry. Retired judge of the Supreme Court of Appeals, Honourable Judge Ian Gordon Farlam took his seat on August 23, 2012, and for more than 2 years would hear the testimony of all the parties involved, including that of Cyril Ramaphosa, who entered the hall to the cries of “blood on his hands” from the audience. While the Commission cleared him of wrongdoing, easing the now-Deputy President’s way to a possible promotion, the lawyers representing the miners continue to demand he be held responsible, most recently with the attorney representing the miners serving him with a summons, demanding he apologise for the massacre and to compensate those who were affected.

One of the legacies of this event was a closer examination of the decision-making level of the SA government – something Mandy Tomson delves into elsewhere in this publication. One of the major players in the Marikana massacre was Mangwashi Victoria Phiyega, aka Riah Phiyega, the Police Commissioner of the South African Police Service. Appointed to the position in June 2012, Phiyega is but one example – but an important one – of the cronyism run rampant in the current government.  Placing unqualified, or at best under-qualified, people in positions of power played its own role in the catastrophe that was Marikana. With degrees in social sciences and business administration, and a career in the corporate sector, including large banks and transportation, including a stint as “well-being consultant” at the Chamber of Mines, Phiyega had no experience as a police officer. She claimed her background as a manager would serve her well. Despite coming under some scrutiny when she would appear in public wearing full police uniform, decked with an array of medals and honors – many of which were not awarded to police officers who were actually qualified to wear them - her Amin-esque appearance was generally overlooked.

Her testimony to the Farlam Commission, which advised on an investigation into her fitness to hold office, claimed the police had been attacked by the workers, saying, “The militant group stormed toward the police firing shots and wielding dangerous weapons.” It is still unclear where that version originated, since the video evidence show a very different picture. She has also claimed that, as she was only in that position for 2 months at the time of the massacre, it was really her predecessor’s fault for militarising the police, and she had trusted her senior management to handle the crisis.

Phyega was suspended from her position in 2015, following an investigation into her practices as Commissioner by the country’s Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation, aka “Scorpions”, whose job it is to investigate organised crime, economic crime, and corruption cases referred to it by SAPS.  

As of publication date, there is a dust-up between Phiyega and Police Minister Nkosinathi Nhleko and we will be keeping an eye on how that plays out going forward.

THE MINERS

Shortly after the massacre, 17 miners were charged with the killing of the 10 who lost their lives prior to the day of the massacre - charges that were withdrawn pending the findings of the Commission, but in October 2015 were reinstated. The pretrial is scheduled to come before the courts around time of publishing.

The 270 workers directly involved in the massacre were originally charged under the “common purpose doctrine”, but those charges were dropped. Common purpose is a legal doctrine that states all participants in a crime are responsible for the consequences, even if it is not their intention. In a previous high profile case in South Africa – the Sharpeville Six- common doctrine came under fire by the international community as unlawful and racist, with two jurists calling it a “crime against humanity”.

I asked Rehad Desai about the situation for the miners following the Commission:

“Lonmin did go before the Commission, as did the unions. The final report states that there is a case for criminal negligence on behalf of the directors of Lonmin. The parties, whether the state or the NPA (National Prosecuting Authority), will follow up in another question but the legal representatives of the injured and arrested have served papers for private criminal prosecution against Cyril Ramaphosa and it’s also recommended with the Farlam Commission that the NUM – those people who fired at the mine workers - be investigated. Again, whether that happens is a case to be seen.

“The government has asked the legal representatives of the families of the slain miners and the injured and arrested to enter discussions which will be happening at the end of this month.

“I think the willingness of workers to step outside their trade unions; the framework they’ve set up to deal in so-called legitimate manner with workers, was certainly not working for them. The workers went on to win significant increases.”

Lonmin agreed to increase salaries by 22%, with a one-off payment of R2 000 to help cover the weeks they were on strike. The miners got less of an increase they wanted, but as for their actions, and the consequences, as Desai says, “This has to be remembered.”

MINING FOR CHANGE

The extraordinary system changes South Africa experienced through the decades leading up to full democracy in 1994, were as a direct result of grassroots democracy, and the events at Marikana were emblematic of this.  The people, in this case poor, uneducated, and largely illiterate rock drillers, stood up and demanded their rights in a show of strength and certainty one doesn’t often see. How the government chooses to deal with this will reflect whether the establishment is so because it has inherited the systems created by the colonial powers, followed by the apartheid governments… or whether they remind themselves how they got into that position – and whether the people they used to represent will allow them to stay there

Rehad Desai: “I think what’s happened to the African National Congress stewarding party is essentially being captured by black tycoons – created through BEE (the “Black Economic Empowerment” programme created by the government to redress racial inequalities) and therefore they will not act counter to those interests which have become dominant around the sitting President, Jacob Zuma, who is surrounded by a number of securocrats, as they’re labeled, and these tycoons who are now the dominant faction in the ANC. The grassroots activism will now have to come from those outside of the ANC – we can see that happening with the students, in the townships, and it’s often led by the good old freedom fighters. The National Union of Metalworkers of SA (“NUMSA”), the biggest trade union in the country, is now forming a new trade union federation. We also have the United Front, which is composed of 240 civic-based organizations and a few NGO’s, working together with the likes of Section 27 (a public interest law center) and Equal Education (a movement of educators, parents, and community members), as well as other mass organizations, around corruption. These are important developments and they need to be noted.”

Noted.

Rehad Desai’s film, “Miners Shot Down” has won 21 awards, including an International Emmy. It has featured, and won awards at, nearly 100 film festivals around the world. International screenings number into the hundreds and attention to this issue continues to grow.

To hear the interview with Rehad Desai, please visit the website at https://perspective-publications.com

 

In The Land of Blood and Honey

There’s something magical about watching a movie on the silver screen. You give permission for the story to envelop you, to get lost in the scenes, to become a character.

And then there are the films where one needs the sanctuary of home, to absorb without being in it, because the intensity of the experience leaves one appreciating the safe comfort of one’s home.

“In the Land of Blood and Honey” is one such film. Not available in my local theaters, I curled up in an overstuffed armchair and relied on the “One Demand” menu to transport me into Angelina Jolie’s directorial debut.

It’s a tough, emotional journey, drawing one through the tangled, complex love story made even more complicated by the historical reality of the Balkans. The romance between Danijel, a Christian-Serb (played by Goran Kostic) and Muslim-Bosnian Ajla (Zana Marjonivic) plays out as a metaphor for a country beset by ancient prejudices, double standards and the universal application of violence against women and one’s own neighbors, to support (in this case Serbian-Christian) male hegemony.

Jolie paints Danijel a complex character – gentle and sensitive, yet victim of an Oedipal complex as he tries to follow his father, General Nebojsa Vukojevich (Rade Serbedzija) into the Serbian army and xenophobic-inspired killing. Danijel is popular with the men he leads, turning into a Muslim killer before our eyes, and we see him constantly wrestle with the conflicting roles he plays. As the viewer squirms away from the violence of neighbor against neighbor, and feels revulsion when faced with the General’s hateful views towards the Muslims of his own community, as we also feel sympathy for the man caught in a situation beyond his control. One aches for the soldier who tries to protect his love, his prisoner, from his own people.

“Why couldn’t you be born a Serb?” he asks plaintively, gently stroking her face.

Ajla is a more passive character – something of a surprise to me, considering the strong, powerful women Jolie usually elects to play as an actress. Ajla is a metaphor for all the women caught up in this testosterone-fuelled war. In the few moments where she shows her inner strength, we can believe she will endure, if she simply stays quiet, submissive. It is this subtlety in Jolie’s writing and direction that is remarkable. Too often, especially with an actor-novice director, the actor cannot help but be the unseen star. But Jolie steps away, allowing the story to speak its own truth.

The film includes a by now well-known scene: a row of Muslim prisoners, emaciated, watching the camera blankly as it pans past them. Those stares sear our consciousness and fuses with the same eyes we’ve seen in footage from Nazi concentration camps, Darfurian refugees, starving East African children.

As politicians try to deny the existence of these situations (Bush 1’s Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Thomas Niles: “We don’t have, thus far, substantiated information that would confirm the existence of these camps.”), we become increasingly aware of the weakness in our leaders and the international community in dealing with a situation like this, favoring the protection of their political careers over getting involved in protecting fellow humans.

The former Yugoslavia was a complicated beast: a federation of 6 Republics: Slovenia, Macedonia and Montenegro, and the larger and more problematic three, Serbia (mostly Orthodox, but with a large Albanian enclave in Kosovo); Croatia (mainly Catholic, but complicated by Serb-dominated Karjina); and Bosnia, with a large Muslim population and nationalistic Serb-Croatian minorities.

Prior to the Ottoman Empire, the majority of Bosnia had been Orthodox Christian, albeit with regular conflicts with Rome. That lack of strict orthodoxy may well have contributed to opening the door to Islam when the Ottoman Empire powered through the region. Conversion of about one-third of Bosnia’s Christians to Islam appears, however, to be more a matter of survival and expediency than any spiritual awakening.

For more than three centuries, Christians were routinely subjected to rigorous oppression: hefty poll taxes, unable to carry weapons, barred from wearing green, the color of Islam. They were required to dismount when a Muslim passed; they were not allowed to build a better residence than a Muslim neighbor; churches were to be built low and modest, and certainly with no church bells. Non-Muslims had no legal status and could not testify against a Muslim. They could be sentenced to death if found guilty of blasphemy – a Muslim’s accusation could not be countered.

By the time the indignity and humiliation resulted in numerous uprisings against the Muslim overlords, the anger had settled blood-deep. As much as the Hapsburgs were seen initially as liberators, their continued pandering to the Muslims did not help the nationalistic fervor that was growing.

In a telling scene in the film, a conversation between Danijel and his father: “This land is soaked in Serbian blood. And now they want us to live here under Muslim rule? In a Muslim state?”

Tito’s Yugoslavia was a time where at least on a superficial level, wounds appeared to have healed. But, in constructing as fair a balance as possible between the groups, the resultant peace merely served as a band-aid to the centuries-long resentment.

Numerous uprisings between the parties, all claiming to be more historically aggrieved than the others unsettled Yugoslavia after Tito’s death, and by 1992, when the European Community recognized Bosnia as an independent state, tensions erupted. As Serbians tried to take control of Sarajevo, and the country stepped closer to the abyss, the cruelty of Serbian anger grew, as they unflinchingly attacked women and children, and bombed hospitals – a signal of what was in store.

The reign of terror, the rape camps where women, and children as young as 3 or 4 years old, were violated in tens of thousands, left no doubt that nothing short of ethnic cleansing was on Serbian minds. In some areas, a home owner’s ethnicity was painted on his front door – Serb homes were left untouched. Muslim and Croatians homes were destroyed. Non-Serbs were forced out of their jobs. In at least one instance, hundreds were locked in a building which was then burned down; many hundreds were rounded into cattle trucks and left for days, with masses of children and the vulnerable adults dying.

While Serb forces were driving out nearly 2 million Bosnians, the UN relief agencies refused refugees access to safety – acknowledgement of their plight would make them accomplices to the cleansing.

The most powerful weapon in a war is the media. Much of what happened was due to political manipulation of the media from all sides.

Both Muslim and Christians indulged in vampiric hominems, instilling fear and driving all sides closer to war.

One journalist said, “You Americans would become nationalist and racists, too, if your media were totally in the hands of the KKK.”

The propaganda was relentless, and the fear of what could happen became the impetus for what actually happened.

The UN peacekeepers sent to Bosnia in May 1992 were refused permission to use force beyond personal protection. Wagging a finger at a patriot intent on killing is no way to keep any peace, and UN and NATO soldiers were mocked, with some taken hostage in a clear message of contempt for the international community.

DANIJEL: You think the rest of the world will ignore this? I don’t. The UN has already sent peacekeepers to Croatia. They will not turn their backs on all of this.

VUKOJEVIC: Of course they see everything, but they will not attack us. They won’t do anything…. Bolster your men. And finish cleansing this area.

This mirrors a real moment, caught on tape of a Serb Commander of the VRS (Army of Republika Srpska), ordering the shelling of the UN-protected “safe zone” of Srebrenica:

“That’s it, man. I see the hard one. Let’s lash out at them…. Push it now. I want to hear the Wolves howling. Charge! NATO Pact won’t do anything to us… Take your best positions…”

From Radislav Krstic, Chief of Staff of the Drina Wolves, outside Srebrenica: “There are still 3,500 parcels I have to distribute and I have no solution.”

And later, from the Muslim enclave of Zepa, “Kill them all – not a single one must be left alive.”

The infamous assault on the town of Srebrenica has been written by many. The desire by General Mladic to stop the pipeline of arms into the UN-run town, defended by Dutch peacekeepers trying to protect thousands of Muslim refugees, resulted in the shocking genocide that finally catapulted the war onto front pages globally. Non-combatant Serbs, including women and children, were butchered, tortured, mutilated, burned alive, and the fortunate few to escape that horror were brutally raped as peacekeepers stood by, unable to defend the victims.

Finally, the world paid attention. Whether Srebrenica was attacked as a way to score points in the propaganda war, or whether it was resolved ethnic cleansing of Muslims, can be debated. Certainly, neither side had clean hands in the war to this point.

Perhaps the term “ethnic cleansing” is a misnomer. The ethnic groups had been living in relative harmony for a long time, despite the underlying tensions. This appeared to be more cultural, communal, and religious.

Indira Hadziomerovic said in Sarajevo, 1992: “We lived happily together for many years and now it has come to killing each other’s babies. What is happening to us?”

Trying to cloak genocide behind a wall neatly labeled “humanitarian crisis” reflects a leadership driven by fear. In an attempt to relegate the Balkans to irrelevance, James Baker described it as a “European problem”. A “European problem” allowed America to divorce itself from the reality of being a part of Europe. A myopic vision of history meant Americans seeing the Balkans as an isolated, European issue, rather than a contribution to the stability of Europe, and by extension, America. The fates of all countries are tied together, and the relationship between Danijel and Ajla is symbolic of that connection.

The film being available “on demand” proves a point: even at the height of the genocide, few in the general public were really interested in what was happening. The disinterest was probably as much from not understanding the complicated scenario of Croats-Serb-Muslim-Christians, and the inability to word what was happening into a soundbite, as it was the near-xenophobic view many embrace by thinking that what happens “over there” is none of their concern.

The unflinching conclusion made me grateful for that overstuffed armchair, as I sat, doing something I never normally do: watching every credit as it rolled past, unable to move, reluctant to return to the world, relieved that I didn’t need to step over empty popcorn boxes, to join the throng of people in a sane, safe shopping mall.

Instead, I sat stunned. Absorbed. Moved. Quiet. Grateful.

This review was first published in MIPJ, Volume 1.

COMING HOME

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After living in the States for nearly two decades, Leigh Barrett decided to come back to SA – and fell in love with her homeland.

I left South Africa in 1998 – not for any of the usual reasons people use to leave South Africa, but simply there was another world out there. I packed up my 5 dogs, and hit the plane to New York. We meandered across the continent eventually landing in a town I’d never heard of before: Eugene, Oregon. Aside from a two year interval in Los Angeles (a ghastly place overall), this laid-back, casual and friendly hippie enclave was my home until February 2016.

There was a long period of culture shock, trying to adapt to life that in odd and subtle ways was very different. I had some fun with that, at times: Americans might not believe we live in huts, but you could confuse them by saying zebra meat is black and white all the way through!

A chance meeting at a local public radio station resulted in a surprise gig. I’d worked in TV and print in South Africa, but radio was a first for me. When a stranger called to me from across the room and asked if I wanted to present Women In Music, I wasn’t about to tell him I had no idea what that was. The next week, I was a radio DJ, and I spent the next 12 years having fun on the airwaves. I presented weekly music shows, where more South African music was played than had ever been heard there before. A second radio station offered me a timeslot where I created a weekly news show focusing on Africa, and it became the ‘go-to’ place to find out what was happening on the continent.

Beyond my unpaid radio gigs, however, I found life less than satisfying: initially, I had tried to utilize my South African television documentary production experience, but local TV in America is limited and the most creative I could get was to make sure the camera was pointed in the right direction. I had to pay the rent somehow, so I used my basic knowledge of QuickBooks and delved into bookkeeping. Of course, I was bored stiff. Did life really come down to breathing and doing anything to pay the rent?

I spent two years unemployed when the economy nosedived in 2008, eventually finding a position in the finance department of a global software giant. My job was mostly spent being a listening companion to my manager, whose staff had been outsourced to India. So, for the next 5 years, in return for a salary with benefits, I spent a couple of hours each day listening to her recount the minutiae of her uninteresting life. It was, in some respects, the perfect job: I had all the time in the world to start focusing on what I really wanted to do, and Facebook opened the door to that very opportunity.

I connected with a woman who had a foundation focusing on humanitarian issues, and when she asked me to create podcasts on some of those topics, I jumped at the chance. It wouldn’t pay anything, but I started to relocate my passion as I researched, wrote, interviewed, scripted, and audio-edited shows. They were well-received, so she asked me to write articles for the Journal she was publishing. Again, I dived in. It was still unpaid work, but I didn’t really mind – my “real” job kept the rent paid, and I was feeling that fluttering in my gut that told me I was on the right path.

And then, my cushy job went away in corporate restructuring. I wasn’t surprised, but it started to sharply focus my mind towards that question of what life really is. One morning, I awoke with a thought of absolute clarity and deep certainty: it was time to come home.

It had been a long 18 years since I had left. And while I’d kept up with the news, reports cannot truly convey the reality of a place, even one that was once so familiar. I had always rejected the idea of coming back before, concerned that perhaps I had changed too much to ‘fit in’. A laughable concept – I’d never “fitted in”. An introverted outsider since birth, society had never been a comfortable place for me.

A well-hidden bridge, winterton, KZN

A well-hidden bridge, winterton, KZN

I cast myself into South Africa with a solo road trip that extended to almost six weeks. I journeyed from Johannesburg, through the Free State, the KZN Midlands, Eastern Cape, Garden Route, and the Karoo, before finding my feet in Cape Town. I navigated dongas, ditches, tyre blowouts, potholes, incredible hospitality, some of the best food and coffee I’ve ever had – all the while dealing with Shirley, my car’s GPS who never seemed to have a clue where we were. And I fell in love.

For 18 years, I had followed American politics closely and seen, first-hand the disillusionment of so many who understood what had happened to their country, but ceased to care. In South Africa, we play our politics out in the open. We are not an acquiescent people. We shout, we scream, and we break things when we feel we must. We demand democracy. The issues we face – corruption, state capture, mismanagement – are to a large extent considered “Tuesday” in countries like America. In South Africa, we rage against them. We have a vibrant, healthy democracy and we fight for it, every day.

On my way to Cape Town, I envisaged my new job. The gut-fluttering I’d felt before made it a “no-brainer”. I wanted to focus on the humanitarian and current affairs stories that don’t always get the attention of the news media. March saw the launch of Perspective: Africa, an idea born while I was on some highway Shirley called “off road”. It contained several excellent essays on the mining battle playing out on our Wild Coast, simply stunning photography, and various op-eds and articles from people in different parts of the world who also love this continent. The fact that it’s possible to produce this level of publication, with no financial backing, no advertising, and no money of my own to support it, is beyond my imagining.

Just over a year ago, I made the decision to come home to live a fulfilled life. Now settled in a studio apartment above a garage on a little vineyard, I take stock of the list of experiences, gifts, skills, and talents I have developed over the years. It may happen that I’ll need to find a boring bookkeeping job soon – but this is South Africa! Opportunities abound, and my love for this country knows no limits.

This may be one more leap into the unknown. But what I do know with unwavering certainty, is that I am so fortunate to be back – and this time to offer all I have to this extraordinary country.

First published in Fair Lady Magazine, February 2017
Re-published on Homecoming Revolution newsletter

Click here to read about the full road trip and see more photos: NIUME BLOG

Artisanal Journalism

The phrase “artisanal journalism” has been doing the rounds for a few years now, and most often the analogy is made to cheese. It makes sense, in a way. Cheese has always been the prime reference point when considering artisanal foods. Just as there are a multitude of levels of cheeses: from the unspeakable notion of cheese-in-a-can, to the fine art of producing the perfect Camembert, so does journalism fill a variety of levels. And “artisanal reportage” is nowhere near a “tweet-in-a-can”.

In an age of soundbite reporting, when the general media feels the need to encompass only the most basic data in 150 words or less, leaving those who actually WANT to be informed about the world with a growing frustration, data-driven news reporting will always have a place. People do need to know what happened on their street, how many were impacted, the results of an election, and so on. On the other side of the coin, investigative journalism is a luxury few can afford. Spending inordinate amounts of time diving down rabbit holes to get to all the facts of a case is time-consuming, and important, but is often difficult to do in the broader, commercial market. So, what lies between soundbites and investigations? With media companies relying more heavily on freelancers to sustain their business model, the new breed of journalist is now filling a niche that is as varied and delectable as the multitude of cheeses available in almost every nook and cranny of the world.

Utilizing hard news data and investigative reporting to assist in the production of artisanal journalism, freelancers can offer each market a unique and, to risk overstretching the metaphor, tasty meal to audiences. The same talented writer who can research and create an informative long-form essay on the dangers of climate change, can also deliver a profound work on the advantages of travel to a new holiday destination. But, instead of making the article accessible to every audience, everywhere, occasionally dumbing it down to result in little more than “chewing gum for the brain”, the “niche” becomes the important focus. Directing writing to a particular audience, tapping into an existing consumer base who can appreciate the deeper and often more intellectual aspects of the topic, becomes the writer’s purpose.

Being versatile in today’s media market means being able to tell a story on various platforms: print, digital, audio, video, and all their sub-sets. Sourcing the information and being fully engaged in a topic, the writer also become their own editor, without the old-fashioned hierarchy that used to fill newsrooms. Honing skills in this way does not make an editor obsolete, but it does mean that without that chain of command, and given a certain autonomy, there is a higher value placed on the writer’s reputation. When a writer is less able to hide behind the hierarchy, the better ones will start to rise from the masses of people who only think they can write well.

Print is still popular. Despite almost everyone and their uncle having access to books, magazines, and newspapers on their phone, tablet or other gadget, there is still a high demand for the printed word. Perspective Publications still sells more journals through print, than the cheaper digital option. But, even as the daily news available at the local supermarket is the go-to source for the facts, and only the facts, ma’am, the new option extends to a publication that can take a longer, wider, deeper, perspective of a story. The journalist, potentially unbound by an hourly deadline, can source all the available information, and compile it into a larger, “big picture” story, which allows readers to fully understand the context. In other words, “artisanal journalism” really means “knowledge-based”. It demands a high degree of writing, a more nuanced presentation, a demand for objectivity, and a readership that is keen to be informed.

As we progress through the 21st century, and the world grows smaller and closer, the issues that were once only read about deep in the folds of a newspaper, are now on our front doorstep. The “artisan journalist”, usually a freelancer struggling to bring readers the information they need to know, is commonly found in the most unsung niche: the humanitarian media. These journalists endeavor to place the world in context: why does a Saharan sandstorm affect people living in South America? Why does it matter to someone in America that someone in Sierra Leone contracted Ebola? And they’ll tell you why it matters to a Canadian that Syrian refugees are fleeing death and destruction, or how a blossoming Arab Spring affects South Africans.

The ability to explain, not just the profound impact of that sandstorm, but WHY you need to know about it, is a gift given by the writer to the general population. It takes talented and skilled individuals, with an ability to inform and educate, to bring a nuanced and complex world to a reader who wasn’t aware they needed to know the information. The best artisanal journalist is a storyteller, and the world needs more really great storytellers.

The Freedom to Speak... Or Not

When speech can lead to genocide.

By Leigh Barrett, Executive Editor, Perspective Publications

Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities – Voltaire

To commit violence against another often reflects the insecurity of the perpetrator’s self-identity and, in countries where people are under socio-economic or political pressure, there is a greater tendency to find reasons to distinguish themselves from those who appear “different”: sometimes from another country, but frequently fellow citizens and often family members, as people look for a way to express that insecurity.

Africa has played host to only a few of the genocides and wars the world has experienced over the millennia – from long before the Ottoman attacks on the Assyrians in the nineteenth century, the infamous Nazi extermination of the Jewish people in Europe, the efforts by some colonial powers to subdue or control their subjects in Asia, the Americas and beyond - the list seems to be endless. But, where does it begin? What is the catalyst that brings a group of people, often groups who have lived in peace with their neighbors for decades and even centuries, to that nadir where they rise up and are prepared to slaughter them in large-scale numbers?

In arguably every case, the violence begins with words.

Perhaps the most familiar to our recent memory is what happened in Rwanda.

People tend to take their history seriously, and the stories of the past are passed through the generations. Rwanda was settled over a period of two thousand years, with Hutu and Tutsi living peaceably under a system that was both complex and highly effective. Small groups based on ancestry or loyalty to their leader would set aside differences in order to share their common history. However, through the 18th century, the pastoralists and agrarians that made up Rwandan society were increasingly led by those who saw great advantage in accumulating wealth and power over their subjects. The mythology attached to some leaders exaggerated their power to the extent that they were thought able to control the rain, or manage pests, and other such grand tales. Over generations, these mythologies served to create deeper divisions between groups – and those divisions broke wide open with the arrival of the colonial powers.

In 1884, the Berlin Conference assigned Rwanda to Germany to manage. They did little with it, but that all changed when Belgium took it over during World War 1, and found themselves faced with a complex state that had developed over the centuries as Twa and Bantu groups settled into their claimed areas, and created several kingdoms.

Belgium changed the hierarchical structures that took too much of their energy to govern, and their lack of interest in understanding complex African tribal governance resulted in their preference to focus instead on the incredible wealth the region offered. Areas where the groups lived in harmony but with minimal governance were seen by the Europeans as a threat to their idea of good order. So, the Belgians started to restructure the country, regrouping chiefdoms and hierarchies, and systematically destroying the power of ancestral leaders. The Rwandan leaders, in many instances, were astute enough to play along - albeit keeping the rural chiefs and royal families in place without letting that knowledge reach the Europeans – and negotiated a lifestyle that benefitted them. It may have worked for the chiefs and rulers, but the ordinary person started to lose the economic battle as the benefits of working within the colonial system never filtered further than the upper echelons of society.

The Belgians then decided that Tutsis should have the power monopoly, establishing the racism that became common policy among all colonial powers. It was sheer ignorance of the African system: the Belgians had no idea, and neither did they care, if these were groups, clans, tribes, or language groups. They quite simply deemed the Tutsis more capable because they looked more like Europeans, being taller, lighter-skinned, and with a more “Roman-shaped” nose. Hutus came in second place, being more “Bantu”, and the Twa, being aboriginal pygmy hunter-gatherers who preferred to live outside the system, lagged behind.

The Belgians then instituted European-style education, cementing a history learned from their Tutsi friends that was wildly inaccurate, and which ignored the contribution the other tribes had made to the Rwandan nation. Africa’s respect for European-quality education meant that generations of Rwandan schoolchildren, regardless of ancestry, learned this revised history until it became their own.

As colonialism crumbled across the continent from the late 1950’s, the majority Hutu started to rise up in an effort to protect their history, and their fight for tribe survival became known as the “Hutu Revolution”, culminating in Rwanda becoming an independent republic in 1961, with Hutu as the dominating government. Retaliatory attacks would flare up occasionally in the decades that followed, with Tutsis taking refuge in neighboring states of Burundi, Zaire, Tanzania, and notably for what came later, Uganda.

When coffee prices fell sharply in the late 1980’s - the commodity that accounted for 75% of its foreign exchange - Rwanda fell into the “debtor nation” listing, required to adhere to strict fiscal measures imposed by the World Bank. Between the fall of coffee prices and a devastating drought, the imbalance of wealth and power in the country was starker than ever. The President, Habyarimana, a Hutu who had seized control in a coup in 1973, had become increasingly dictatorial, deliberately discriminating against the Tutsis, even while his system of quotas was theoretically designed to do the opposite.

Compounding the issues wrought by a destabilizing economy was the growing determination of Tutsi refugees, especially those in Uganda to return home. Efforts made in this direction were halted by the President who claimed that, with current population demands on the weak economy, their return at the time was simply not possible. This denial was arguably the most important series of events leading up to the genocide of 1994.

Paul Kagame’s Tutsi family had fled Rwanda when he was a child, and he spent his years in Uganda, first enlisting in the rebel army and then becoming a senior Ugandan Army officer. After the Ugandan-Tanzanian war which saw the eventual ousting of Idi Amin in 1979, the Tutsi refugees had founded a refugee organization in which Kagame was very active. Frustrated by the President’s refusal to allow them to return, in 1987, they renamed themselves the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), a far more militaristic organization dedicated to returning refugees through force, if necessary.

Kagame took command of the Rwandan Patriotic Army (sometimes nicknamed “Inkotanyi” meaning “the invincible”), the military wing of the RPF, and the invasion by the refugees of their home country began in 1990.

THE FIRST LIE

One night, the capital city was rocked by heavy fire that lasted hours. Radio listeners were terrified to hear that the RPF had succeeded in attacking the presidential palace in Kigali. Both Tutsi and Hutu rallied around the President, who ordered mass arrests, detention, torture and the killing of dozens in response. The President went on air to warn people to stay in their homes until his army had killed the “cockroach invaders”.

He had, however, staged the entire “attack”: the RPF had been many miles from the city at the time. With this fact still unknown to the world, foreign troops from France, Belgium and Zaire rushed to the country’s aid, pushing back Kagame and the RPF, resulting in the deaths of around 1,000 civilians who were accused of supporting them.

The stage was set.

On 21 September, 1992, Colonel Nsabimama sent a top secret memorandum to his commanders, called “The Memo for the Protection of Human Rights”, which listed people thought to be RPA members or sympathizers. It included a definition of “the enemy”, the principle being, “…the Tutsi inside or outside the country, extremist and nostalgic for power, who have NEVER recognized and will NEVER recognize the realities of the 1959 social revolution and who wish to reconquer power by all means necessary, including arms…”

From 1990, media coverage was relentless, with anti-Tutsi articles and cartoons appearing in the press, and in 1993, a radio station called Radio-Television Libre des Mille Collines (RTMLC) started broadcasting, joining Radio Rwanda, the government-owned station, in directing hate-filled rhetoric towards the Tutsis. The transcripts of those broadcasts are freely available, and the theme of many of the conversations settles on pointing out the (perceived) differences between Tutsi and Hutu, serving to “otherize” the Tutsis by pointing out the advantages they’d had in terms of education, appearance, and almost any other distinction the broadcasters could use to send their message. By delving back into the people’s flawed history, the media was able to insert into their propaganda the message that the Hutus had every right to attack the Tutsis.

After 1990, opponents referred to the RPD as Inyenzi, or cockroaches.

By 1993, the calls to violence became more intense and direct, calling blatantly for the killing of Tutsis, even directing people to certain locations where Tutsis could be found.

“(The) cockroaches Inkotanyi who came killing us and eating our things saying that they will take power….asked the assistance of children, white men and sorcerers… So I think that Inkotanyi will continue to die in our potatoes.”

“…usually they came driving cattle in front of them… Then, the cows are killed and the Inyenzi continued to advance.”

Frequently, Radio Rwanda would say the enemy was actually Uganda; foreigners coming to rape and pillage the country. The broadcast would then meander into a clear indication that these “foreigners” were Tutsi, and encouraged listeners to defend their country by “pushing them back”.

When President Habyarimana died in a plane crash in April 1994, radio stations and Hutu-led press blamed the Tutsis for shooting down the plane, and urged their audiences to “cut the tall trees”, a clear reference to the taller, more “European-looking” Tutsis. Hutus were encouraged to “finish the work” (many of the references to killing their fellow citizens came in references to “work”).

ACCUSATION IN A MIRROR

As a general rule, the more something is repeated, the more validity it attains in listener’s minds. The role of the “accusation in a mirror” or “human rights inversion” has been used throughout history to incite xenophobia and genocide, or at the very least, violence against one’s perceived enemy. Defaming specific groups to encourage their attack and subsequent death has proved very effective, including during Nazi Germany, Yugoslavia, and the Middle East. And 1990-era Rwanda was no different.

In the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, a document was found entitled, Note Relative a la Propagande d’Expansion et de Recrutement (“The Note”). It drew from Goebbels, Lenin and others to create a manual of ways to incite ordinary civilians to attack their fellow countrymen. The principal method was called “accusation in a mirror”. It’s very simple: one side spreads the word that the other side is going to enact horrific acts upon them. The falsehoods are spread widely, and as a result of the wording, civilians are thus literally directed on what action to take.

One such example was Rwandan politician, Leon Mugesera who informed his audience that Tutsis were “cleaning up Rwanda . . . by throwing Hutu in the Nyabarongo River.” Shortly after the speech, many Tutsis were thrown to their death in that river. It was a perfect example of inversion.

In November 1992, Mugesera delivered an impassioned speech to his fellow Hutus, warning that they were about to “exterminated” by “cockroaches”, and he urged them to act. The following day, several killings took place. In one speech, Mugesera stated, “If justice therefore is no longer serving the people… we must do something ourselves to exterminate this rabble.”

The language is consistent with various examples of AiM – referring to people as cockroaches, or rats, urging “extermination” of pests.

KENYA

Tribal differences have always been a part of Kenyan life, but in 2007, it was the Kikuyu people who faced down their fellow Kenyans, most notably the Kalenjin tribe, the second largest ethnic group in Kenya. The Kikuyu have a very old grievance, and once again, it dates back to colonial times when they were forced to leave their traditional highlands and settle in the Rift Valley amidst the Masai. Until that time, the Kikuyu had been a dominant force, independent and fierce – most notably towards Arab slavers, who found themselves on the wrong end of the spear when trying to involve the Kikuyu in the trade. The British were determined to control the population and take over their fertile land for agriculture. In response to their defiance, the Kikuyu were tortured and killed by the British, and, in order to survive, finally started to get involved in politics to resist the British from within the political structure.

In the evening of the swearing-in of President Kibaki, a Kikuyu, who may or may not have won the election through fraudulent means, the Opposition leader from the Lou tribe, Raila Odinga, called for protests against the election results. His call hit the mark, and his supporters started to riot, rampaging through the city, seeking out and killing Kikuyu people. Scores of people were killed, and multiple inceidents of sexual violence and other atrocities, were reported. In one of the more horrific acts, 50 unarmed Kikuyu women and children were locked inside a church and burned alive.

In the violence that overtook Kenya during the elections, AiM became a most effective political tool. Media, as it had in Rwanda, played a dominant role in broadcasting to their listeners just how their opponents planned to “exterminate” them. Each side was convinced that the other was preparing for their slaughter – and therefore, they needed to “defend” themselves by killing the other side first.

After the violence of 2008, the report presented to the Waki Commission specified ways in which the media played a direct role in exacerbating the violence. The vast majority of broadcasters are not trained in conflict mediation or moderation, and are mostly partisan. This is true of every country in the world. Kenya’s main issue is not the freedom of speech on radio, but the lack of independence in broadcasting. Media in the country is state-controlled, and thus provided a platform for not only broadcasters, but also government politicians to spew their hate-filled rhetoric about the “Others” at will.

Listeners would opine about how they wanted to “liberate” themselves from certain communities; coded messages implicitly calling for violence against another tribe.

While what happened in Kenya cannot be compared to Rwanda in terms of scale or lives lost, the alarming fact remains that the media has a crucial role to play in encouraging violence, which can lead to genocide.

The International Criminal Court is hearing the case against Kenyan broadcaster Joshuha Arap Sang, a prominent supporter of Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement, and who has been charged with crimes against humanity. Sang’s radio station, Kass FM, was instrumental in spreading messages of hate and incitement to violence and, in true AiM fashion, falsely reported news regarding the murders of Kalenjin tribe members.

While there have been reports that Kenyans have learned their lesson from the violence of 2008, it is hard to imagine that they – or another generation – won’t fall for the same rhetoric as before. Despite Kenya having passed laws banning hate speech and taking steps to hire 120 police officers to assist in monitoring hate speech for this election period, there is already an increase in the rhetoric that is threatening the 2017 presidential elections.

When people are forced into voting for one particular party because of tribal affiliations, there can only be one outcome: that party/tribe becomes dominant, and instead of uniting a country beyond ethnic boundaries, the country is then split into smaller pieces, with the larger groups struggling for an increased share of the cake.

When the extremist al-Shabaab militia took responsibility for the attack in the coastal town of Mpeketoni in June 2014 which killed 56 people, President Kenyatta referred to it as having been perpetrated by his opposition tribe, the Kikuyu.

BURUNDI

After Burundi’s President Nkurunziza decided to ignore the Constitution and run for a third term in 2015, violent clashes erupted – with many fleeing as refugees to neighboring countries including Rwanda. Media broadcasts controlled by the government started with targeting those opposed to a third term, but it soon escalated to an intimidation campaign and calls for violence, sparking fears that another “ethnic cleansing” was on the cards for the country.

Analysts and human rights activists sent up warning flags after the president of the Burundian senate started referring to “kora” meaning to “work” or “start work”, the same euphemism familiar to previous genocides. And then President Nkurunziza, in calling on people to hand in illegal firearms, referred to those who refused as “cockroaches”. Leaders of areas working with the government were promised land owned by the “traitors”. He included a desire to “exterminate and pulverize” opponents. Senate president Ndikuriyo: “Today, the police shoot in the legs. But when the day comes that we tell them to go to ‘work’, do not come crying to us.”

It became clear to all that the government was calling for a genocide; another version of a Hutu-Tutsi war, but this time along political lines, rather than tribal.

In April 2016, the International Criminal Court announced that it would be investigating the outbreaks of violence as possible war crimes.

SOUTH AFRICA

There are clear warning signs when the line is crossing from expressing an opinion to the incitement of violence, and the world has surely seen enough examples to thoroughly understand what it is by now. Recently, xenophobic attacks in South Africa against those who have come from other parts of Africa, and to a lesser extent, other parts of the world, have received attention.

Zulu king Zwelithini was quoted as saying, “We urge all foreigners to pack their bags and leave.” His statements were mirrored in the actions by some of his subjects in violent attacks against foreigners in the Durban area, forcing them to flee their homes. While the king then condemned the attacks, there is little doubt that his followers were heeding his words.

The son of President Zuma was investigated for repeatedly stating his opposition to foreigners (he narrowed the definition to “illegal residents”), saying, “Remember when I said that we are sitting on a ticking time bomb…  You never know whether they are funding ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) and al-Shabaab. However, I am not saying that they are.”

In the wake of the xenophobic attacks in South Africa in 2015, efforts are currently underway to introduce legislation that addresses racism and hate speech. The bill is called the “National Action Plan to Combat Racism, Xenophobia and Related Intolerances” and appears to be aiming for a clearer definition than exists in the Constitution which states that freedom of expression does not extend to:
“(a) propaganda for war;

(b) incitement of imminent violence; or
(c) advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion, and that constitutes incitement to cause harm.”

Once one understands what hate speech is, the euphemisms and coded language become very obvious. But, after all, if it wasn’t so effective, would so many still utilize it?

For the podcast produced by Executive Editor, Leigh Barrett, on hate speech and its potential consequences, please visit the website’s Audio-Video-Links page for this issue.

This article appears in the June issue of "Perspective: Africa", published by RDSHumanitas/MIPJ, and distributed globally by Ingram Book Group.

In The Land of Blood and Honey - by Leigh Barrett

There’s something magical about watching a movie on the silver screen. You give permission for the story to envelop you, to get lost in the scenes, to become a character.

And then there are the films where one needs the sanctuary of home, to absorb without being in it, because the intensity of the experience leaves one appreciating the safe comfort of one’s home.

“In the Land of Blood and Honey” is one such film. Not available in my local theaters, I curled up in an overstuffed armchair and relied on the “One Demand” menu to transport me into Angelina Jolie’s directorial debut.

It’s a tough, emotional journey, drawing one through the tangled, complex love story made even more complicated by the historical reality of the Balkans. The romance between Danijel, a Christian-Serb (played by Goran Kostic) and Muslim-Bosnian Ajla (Zana Marjonivic) plays out as a metaphor for a country beset by ancient prejudices, double standards and the universal application of violence against women and one’s own neighbors, to support (in this case Serbian-Christian) male hegemony.

Jolie paints Danijel a complex character – gentle and sensitive, yet victim of an Oedipal complex as he tries to follow his father, General Nebojsa Vukojevich (Rade Serbedzija) into the Serbian army and xenophobic-inspired killing. Danijel is popular with the men he leads, turning into a Muslim killer before our eyes, and we see him constantly wrestle with the conflicting roles he plays. As the viewer squirms away from the violence of neighbor against neighbor, and feels revulsion when faced with the General’s hateful views towards the Muslims of his own community, as we also feel sympathy for the man caught in a situation beyond his control. One aches for the soldier who tries to protect his love, his prisoner, from his own people.

“Why couldn’t you be born a Serb?” he asks plaintively, gently stroking her face.

Ajla is a more passive character – something of a surprise to me, considering the strong, powerful women Jolie usually elects to play as an actress. Ajla is a metaphor for all the women caught up in this testosterone-fuelled war. In the few moments where she shows her inner strength, we can believe she will endure, if she simply stays quiet, submissive. It is this subtlety in Jolie’s writing and direction that is remarkable. Too often, especially with an actor-novice director, the actor cannot help but be the unseen star. But Jolie steps away, allowing the story to speak its own truth.

The film includes a by now well-known scene: a row of Muslim prisoners, emaciated, watching the camera blankly as it pans past them. Those stares sear our consciousness and fuses with the same eyes we’ve seen in footage from Nazi concentration camps, Darfurian refugees, starving East African children.

As politicians try to deny the existence of these situations (Bush 1’s Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Thomas Niles: “We don’t have, thus far, substantiated information that would confirm the existence of these camps.”), we become increasingly aware of the weakness in our leaders and the international community in dealing with a situation like this, favoring the protection of their political careers over getting involved in protecting fellow humans.

The former Yugoslavia was a complicated beast: a federation of 6 Republics: Slovenia, Macedonia and Montenegro, and the larger and more problematic three, Serbia (mostly Orthodox, but with a large Albanian enclave in Kosovo); Croatia (mainly Catholic, but complicated by Serb-dominated Karjina); and Bosnia, with a large Muslim population and nationalistic Serb-Croatian minorities.

Prior to the Ottoman Empire, the majority of Bosnia had been Orthodox Christian, albeit with regular conflicts with Rome. That lack of strict orthodoxy may well have contributed to opening the door to Islam when the Ottoman Empire powered through the region. Conversion of about one-third of Bosnia’s Christians to Islam appears, however, to be more a matter of survival and expediency than any spiritual awakening.

For more than three centuries, Christians were routinely subjected to rigorous oppression: hefty poll taxes, unable to carry weapons, barred from wearing green, the color of Islam. They were required to dismount when a Muslim passed; they were not allowed to build a better residence than a Muslim neighbor; churches were to be built low and modest, and certainly with no church bells. Non-Muslims had no legal status and could not testify against a Muslim. They could be sentenced to death if found guilty of blasphemy – a Muslim’s accusation could not be countered.

By the time the indignity and humiliation resulted in numerous uprisings against the Muslim overlords, the anger had settled blood-deep. As much as the Hapsburgs were seen initially as liberators, their continued pandering to the Muslims did not help the nationalistic fervor that was growing.

In a telling scene in the film, a conversation between Danijel and his father: “This land is soaked in Serbian blood. And now they want us to live here under Muslim rule? In a Muslim state?”

Tito’s Yugoslavia was a time where at least on a superficial level, wounds appeared to have healed. But, in constructing as fair a balance as possible between the groups, the resultant peace merely served as a band-aid to the centuries-long resentment.

Numerous uprisings between the parties, all claiming to be more historically aggrieved than the others unsettled Yugoslavia after Tito’s death, and by 1992, when the European Community recognized Bosnia as an independent state, tensions erupted. As Serbians tried to take control of Sarajevo, and the country stepped closer to the abyss, the cruelty of Serbian anger grew, as they unflinchingly attacked women and children, and bombed hospitals – a signal of what was in store.

The reign of terror, the rape camps where women, and children as young as 3 or 4 years old, were violated in tens of thousands, left no doubt that nothing short of ethnic cleansing was on Serbian minds. In some areas, a home owner’s ethnicity was painted on his front door – Serb homes were left untouched. Muslim and Croatians homes were destroyed. Non-Serbs were forced out of their jobs. In at least one instance, hundreds were locked in a building which was then burned down; many hundreds were rounded into cattle trucks and left for days, with masses of children and the vulnerable adults dying.

While Serb forces were driving out nearly 2 million Bosnians, the UN relief agencies refused refugees access to safety – acknowledgement of their plight would make them accomplices to the cleansing.

The most powerful weapon in a war is the media. Much of what happened was due to political manipulation of the media from all sides.

Both Muslim and Christians indulged in vampiric hominems, instilling fear and driving all sides closer to war.

One journalist said, “You Americans would become nationalist and racists, too, if your media were totally in the hands of the KKK.”

The propaganda was relentless, and the fear of what could happen became the impetus for what actually happened.

The UN peacekeepers sent to Bosnia in May 1992 were refused permission to use force beyond personal protection. Wagging a finger at a patriot intent on killing is no way to keep any peace, and UN and NATO soldiers were mocked, with some taken hostage in a clear message of contempt for the international community.

DANIJEL: You think the rest of the world will ignore this? I don’t. The UN has already sent peacekeepers to Croatia. They will not turn their backs on all of this.

VUKOJEVIC: Of course they see everything, but they will not attack us. They won’t do anything…. Bolster your men. And finish cleansing this area.

This mirrors a real moment, caught on tape of a Serb Commander of the VRS (Army of Republika Srpska), ordering the shelling of the UN-protected “safe zone” of Srebrenica:

“That’s it, man. I see the hard one. Let’s lash out at them…. Push it now. I want to hear the Wolves howling. Charge! NATO Pact won’t do anything to us… Take your best positions…”

From Radislav Krstic, Chief of Staff of the Drina Wolves, outside Srebrenica: “There are still 3,500 parcels I have to distribute and I have no solution.”

And later, from the Muslim enclave of Zepa, “Kill them all – not a single one must be left alive.”

The infamous assault on the town of Srebrenica has been written by many. The desire by General Mladic to stop the pipeline of arms into the UN-run town, defended by Dutch peacekeepers trying to protect thousands of Muslim refugees, resulted in the shocking genocide that finally catapulted the war onto front pages globally. Non-combatant Serbs, including women and children, were butchered, tortured, mutilated, burned alive, and the fortunate few to escape that horror were brutally raped as peacekeepers stood by, unable to defend the victims.

Finally, the world paid attention. Whether Srebrenica was attacked as a way to score points in the propaganda war, or whether it was resolved ethnic cleansing of Muslims, can be debated. Certainly, neither side had clean hands in the war to this point.

Perhaps the term “ethnic cleansing” is a misnomer. The ethnic groups had been living in relative harmony for a long time, despite the underlying tensions. This appeared to be more cultural, communal, and religious.

Indira Hadziomerovic said in Sarajevo, 1992: “We lived happily together for many years and now it has come to killing each other’s babies. What is happening to us?”

Trying to cloak genocide behind a wall neatly labeled “humanitarian crisis” reflects a leadership driven by fear. In an attempt to relegate the Balkans to irrelevance, James Baker described it as a “European problem”. A “European problem” allowed America to divorce itself from the reality of being a part of Europe. A myopic vision of history meant Americans seeing the Balkans as an isolated, European issue, rather than a contribution to the stability of Europe, and by extension, America. The fates of all countries are tied together, and the relationship between Danijel and Ajla is symbolic of that connection.

The film being available “on demand” proves a point: even at the height of the genocide, few in the general public were really interested in what was happening. The disinterest was probably as much from not understanding the complicated scenario of Croats-Serb-Muslim-Christians, and the inability to word what was happening into a soundbite, as it was the near-xenophobic view many embrace by thinking that what happens “over there” is none of their concern.

The unflinching conclusion made me grateful for that overstuffed armchair, as I sat, doing something I never normally do: watching every credit as it rolled past, unable to move, reluctant to return to the world, relieved that I didn’t need to step over empty popcorn boxes, to join the throng of people in a sane, safe shopping mall.

Instead, I sat stunned. Absorbed. Moved. Quiet. Grateful.

 

This review was previously published in MIPJ: Volume 1-June 2012

 

The First People - by Leigh Barrett

Photo: Clarke Wheeler

Photo: Clarke Wheeler

Botswana: a country of proud history, stunning landscapes, and home to a semi-desert region that extends far beyond its colonial-drawn borders, to South Africa, Namibia, Angola, Zimbabwe, and Zambia. This sparse landscape hides some exceptional diversity of life: from Africa’s largest mammals to 240 species of birds, all finding a home in the Kgalagadi, this “waterless place”. The Kalahari Desert.

The Kalahari occupies 70% of Botswana, and the only permanent river running through it is the fourth longest river system in southern Africa. Born in the Angolan highlands after the January rains, the Okavango snakes its way over 1,000 miles, forming the border between Angola and Namibia, crossing the Caprivi Strip into Botswana, where after a 4-month journey,  it empties into a swamp in the Kalahari Desert. In the rainy season, the swamp becomes an extraordinary delta, a wetland that sustains the grateful life that flocks to it. In ancient times, the Kalahari was a lake, which the Okavango would have fed as a tributary, but now, it simply peters out in the sand.

Ancient fossil river beds, or “omaramba”, now exist in mere moments of time and yet provide the sustenance for all living beings in the region, attracting one of the continent’s greatest concentrations of game.

In the largest-ever study of African genetic data, published in 2009, researchers at University of Pennsylvania demonstrated that the ancestral origins of humans lies in southern Africa, specifically near the South African-Namibian border, and it is from that point migration began, confirming that the San or Bushmen, are indeed the oldest continuous population of humans on Earth.

They are the oldest inhabitants of Africa, and have lived in southern Africa for anywhere between 20,000 and 45,000 years.  If “indigenous” is defined as originating in a particular place, they truly are the “first people”.

Some Namibian children, when asked, thought the San have always lived in the Kalahari, while the Bushmen have long since died out.

While the wide areas they traverse have often led western cultures to consider them nomadic, they are not. Nor have they settled in one spot, preferring to build temporary shelters in traditional areas, with each group “owning” their waterhole (although it is customary to never deny another access to it). With their hunter-gatherer tradition, they obtain most of their food from native plants, and around one-third of their diet coming from hunting antelope and small game.

Elizabeth Marshall-Thomas was a teenager when her anthropologist parents trekked into the desert in 1950 to begin their study of these extraordinary people, and she outlined the concept of the shelters:

“To my way of looking at things, there was a glacial period of 150,000 years ago, the forests dried up and grasslands spread… and there are only a certain number of ways you can live by hunting and gathering on a savanna – you have to live near water, you have to live within walking distance of water, you have to protect yourself against predators. To make nests, the great apes weave branches together and stuff them with leaves - but they just use them for a brief period of time and then move on. If they return to that place they make new nests. It seems to me that when people came down from the trees and lived on the savanna, they kept the nest-making practice: the nests are made from branches, stuck in the ground, woven together and covered with grass. If you look at a great ape nest it’s like your hand is cupped palm up, and if you look at a Bushmen shelter, it’s a hand cupped on its side – it’s the same thing. They don’t go back to the old shelters, they make new ones.”

She explained their interesting relationship with the big cats: “In those days, the lions in the interior didn’t hunt people. Even so, lions loomed large in people’s imaginations, and there were rules that they didn’t talk about lions in daytime, and you couldn’t use the word ‘lion’ – or you shouldn’t. Lions did not hunt people, and the people did not hunt the lions; they shared their living spaces. The lions used it at night, and the people used it during the daytime. At a waterhole, lions drank at night, and people stayed in the encampment. Leopards did prey on people, not much but they were very different from lions. The shelters protected the people from leopards, as they most frequently attack from behind, so if all the shelters face in different directions, someone is going to see a leopard.

“You don’t change things unless you have to. If there is a system that works, you keep it. You have enough to worry about without experimenting with different kinds of shelters. That aspect of their culture goes back a very long time and may have come from the nests that all the great apes build.”

Call it a good marriage:
They never fought in public,
They acted circumspectly
And faced the world with pride. ~ Call It A Good Marriage, by Robert Graves

Gender equality is a long accepted practice in Bushmen culture. Megan Biesele called it a “natural democracy”, with women and men engaged in decision-making and child rearing. Men played a role in hunting and fending off dangerous animals, but were just as capable of fetching firewood and water.

Marshall Thomas: “People were often betrothed as children, and married very young, not to have sexual relations until the girl had passed the menarch. Marriage is less for sex and more for the ties it brings – relationship ties. But, people didn’t have to stay married, and divorce is merely a matter of announcing that you’re divorced. Bushmen society recognized the validity of marriage, and the validity of divorce, but unlike us, they didn’t need a ceremony to bring it about. When young people married for the first time they had a little ceremony attended by other kids—adults weren’t supposed to attend. For later marriages people just announced their marriage, no ceremony. You entered the married state and stayed there, just as we enter the adult state. Marriage was a kind of state of being, as adulthood is a state of being. It is a very different concept of marriage from ours.”

Safety is the most important thing
When hunting with a bow or a gun
A terrible tragedy they can bring
When using them just for fun ~ Hunting, by Kevin Seals

“I was standing near a fire when men were poisoning their arrows, putting the remains of grubs in the fire when the poison was taken out, and somebody told me to get out of the smoke, so I did”, recounts Marshall Thomas. “But, I began to feel pain in my hand and up my arm. I had a hangnail and had bitten on it so it was open. Somebody came and sucked the poison out – it was a couple of molecules and I don’t know if it causes pain, but they were adamant about me getting away from the fire. They use a few drops on an arrow, and the arrow has a shaft and a point, so when the victim tries to remove it, the shaft comes apart and the poisoned head stays in.”

As much as it is a “natural democracy”, children are still disciplined to be quiet, listen, and learn. Babies stay close to their mothers, and the parents are excellent observers. This carried through to the children, and they learn to observe the smallest details.

“I never saw a kid do anything bad and be punished. An interesting thing happened: one little boy had an eye infection, and I was giving him medicine but he didn’t like it. One day, he saw me coming towards him with the medicine and he grabbed an arrow out of his father’s quiver – a poison arrow. There was a gasp and a hush fell over everybody. He realized that he had done something terrible, not from anyone punishing him, but how everyone reacted.

“They had real approval. Not in the way we do, but in a much more accepting way. Also, kids are spaced about 4 years apart, so they don’t have immediate rivals for their parents’ attention.”

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour. ~ Auguries of Innocence, by William Blake                                                 

To understand the ways of the Oldest People is to rethink almost everything we’ve learned since the Neolithic Age, and nowhere is there a better illustration than when Marshall-Thomas presented the group she visited with a Rorschach Test.

Photo: Max Bastard/African Eyes Photography

Photo: Max Bastard/African Eyes Photography

“We tend to see a whole picture – we’re used to looking at pictures. You see a whole picture and you know: that’s what it is, that’s what it’s for. When they look at a picture, they saw the details which made the collective picture. When you look at the natural world, small things will tell you a wide variety of stuff. They very much lived in the present, in the moment, and they noticed things – they had to. It was terribly important to pay attention and to be aware of (everything) around you. So, I got young boys – the girls didn’t want to do it – I got them to draw things. They drew tracks. Of course they drew tracks! It’s the only visual representation they ever encounter. That just made perfect sense to me. When they looked at a Rorschach picture, they wanted to see the details, they wanted to know what’s going on there.”

In the West dance silhouettes of small bodies housing large hearts
And the cosmic sense of one-ness
A cow yawns and a skinny dog barks and a fire flickers
A fire that induces the birth of stories about the master, the trickster and the hero
Chants and songs. Chants and songs.
Notes in a strange and peculiar combination escape their throats
A joyful noise to their creator that still remembered them.
They dance.
Yodels and circle songs reach a fervent peak.
And the stars begin to fall.
A jerk in the jugular string.
Umbilical anchor to the universal mind.
Brings a trance ~ from Khoisan-Ultra African, by Zena Edwards

The purpose of the trance dance is to eliminate “star sickness” – jealousy, a bad feeling within the group – and it works. As more so-called “advanced” cultures are recently starting to learn, dancing and music is good for the soul, and that is something the Bushmen learned many thousands of years ago. A common misconception is that they do “rain dances”. Marshall Thomas calls that one silly.

“Nobody thought a dance could bring the rain. They know their environment so well, they can feel the rain is coming, and they dance to use the power of the rain to affect the ‘star sickness’”. She continues, “Dances are a marvelous thing – on a moonlit night, around a fire, and people dancing, women singing, and clapping.”

“When I dance, I dance for the healing of all people. I dance for our traditions to stand up.
When I play, I speak of all I see and all that I am.” ~ !Gube, quoted from the Lianne Cox film, “Lion Shaman”.

Music has always played an important part in the lives of the Bushmen. Songs to commemorate events in their lives are composed in the moment, accompanied by instruments made from a hunting bow or a gourd rigged with sinews.

Those songs have changed since Marshall Thomas lived with the people in the desert. These days, the songs have turned to topics like forced relocations, and the government’s harsh oppression of this ancient people.

Water, water, everywhere (… for Elephants…. for Diamonds)
Nor any drop to drink ~ (with apologies to Samuel Taylor Coleridge)

Botswana’s economy depends on mining, contributing 25% of the country’s economy, and forming the foundation that has marked the country’s history of being a stable, ongoing peaceful democracy. The other largest contributor is tourism, contributing around 12% to the GDP. Botswana is, in almost every way, one of Africa’s few success stories.

That achievement is tarnished when one examines their record on human rights in recent years. While the country rarely holds back in speaking out against abuses in other parts of the continent, Botswana has its own flaws: criminalization of homosexuality (rarely enforced), death penalty (where executions are generally unannounced and families unable to attend the burial of a loved one, nor visit the grave), and then there is their treatment of the First People.

Persecuted since 1800 when African pastoralists moved into the region, trekking herds of pasture-depleting cattle from northern parts of Africa, then confronted by white settlers who hunted them down as trophies and debated whether to declare them “vermin”, until recently, when this diamond of Africa turned on its people and drove them into the arms of the 21st century and all that comes with it: alcoholism, illness, poverty, and disengagement.

With the government of Botswana failing to recognize the uniqueness and anthropological value of the Bushmen, they seem to be repeating all that has come before: being dispossessed of land because they do not have cattle (a symbol of wealth amongst the pastoral African tribes), to being treated as sub-human because they do not value the materialistic and do not wield political power.

When the government trucks rattled noisily into Bushmen camps in 1997 (and many times since then), the wheels set in motion a change for the people that would be irreversible. Taken from a life that had sustained them for tens of thousands of years, into an unheard of poverty – all with the promise of health care, education, and jobs – the groups struggle to survive. A leaked cable written by the US Ambassador to Botswana in 2005 and released by Wikileaks said, “It is also clear that people have been dumped in economically absolutely unviable situations without forethought, and without follow-up support… The lack of imagination displayed on the part of the GOB (government of Botswana) is breathtaking.”

The promise the Botswana government made - that there would be no mining on the Central Kalahari Game Reserve - was reneged in 2014, when they approved a new diamond mine open just a few miles from a Bushmen village. The $5billion mining operation is in the middle of the ancestral land of the Bushmen, and exposes Botswana’s claim of a commitment to conservation as fraudulent.

Large tracts of the Reserve have also been opened up to fracking, with exploration covering around half the area of the Reserve, raising the specter of land grabs, using up any potable water (fracking cannot be done with the water accessible to animals as it is high in mineral salts), and irreparable damage to the already fragile ecosystem. Australian company Tiou Energy has started exploratory drilling for fracking wells on traditional hunting land, with no consultation with the Bushmen.

James Workman, author of 'Heart of dryness' and water management expert

James Workman, author of 'Heart of dryness' and water management expert

Water management expert, environmentalist, and author of the excellent book, “Heart of Dryness”, James Workman says, “The Kalahari is valuable to the government for 3 reasons: ecotourism, cattle ranching (selling beef to Europe), and diamond reserves. 90% of Botswana’s wealth comes from high grade diamonds. Is water more valuable for people or for diamonds? Botswana chose diamonds.”

Professor Robert Hitchcock considers another reason: “Some would argue that (the motivation for the forced removals) is partly commercial, and there are plenty of places in Botswana and elsewhere in the world where people can live in tourist areas and benefit greatly from tourism. The government policies only give rights to wildlife, not to other products and don’t give right of land – which is one of the issues that they’re facing. But, the argument that diamonds were the cause doesn’t hold water. I don’t think most people believe diamonds were the reason for the relocation, and the decision to relocate them was made independently of any consideration of minerals. Those mineral strikes had been known long prior to the time the decision was made. Those kinds of mining activities were taking place across Botswana and other parts of southern Africa without removing people.

“Certainly there are organizations that argue that diamonds were the reason, but all evidence suggests that pressure came mainly from conservationists. In some cases, there are organizations that are pro-indigenous people and work with them and support them. But there are others that take a harder line and say people and game reserves are essentially incompatible.”

However, as Workman explains: “What the Bushmen don’t eat, they barter. There is an element of trade which turns scarcity into abundance. They never waste a single drop.”

Marshall Thomas: “Their interpretation of the earth is 100% accurate. They knew more than anybody else, they know everything about their environment and every plant, every insect. They knew the properties of the plants, where they grew, what circumstances made them bloom or bear fruit, and they were never wrong.”

In a moment of surely unintended irony, current President Ian Khama, hailed internationally as a staunch environmentalist who claims to seek ways to avoid exploiting the country’s natural resources, reflects the old colonial way of seeing the Bushmen, “They have to be moved into the modern way of doing things. Give them livelihoods which will allow them and their children to live better lives and not do what Survival International expects, to continue living a very extinct form of life, a very backward form of life, denying them – and especially their children – opportunities to grow with the mainstream of our citizens.” 

It began as a casual quip at a border post. A woman spotted a portrait of Botswana's President and remarked that he "looks like a Bushman."
Security officers sprang into action. The woman was detained, interrogated at a police station, kept in custody for a night and a day and forced to pay a fine before being freed.
The reason: Her innocent comment about the leader's resemblance to the original people of Southern Africa was deemed "insulting" to the country.
As reported by Geoffrey York, Johannesburg — From Globe and Mail, Published Thursday, Nov. 12, 2009

A spokesman for the Botswana government said, “It has been and remains Government’s view that the establishment of New Xade has increased both immediate and long-term opportunities for economic and social development of its residents, as is reflected in the village’s ongoing growth.” Among the Bushmen, however, these camps to which they have been relocated are commonly called “places of death” as they are forced to adapt to a sedentary lifestyle, homelessness, and high levels of alcoholism and illness (with HIV/Aids being rampant). The encouragement to accept paying work has resulted in almost chronic exploitation.

New Xade (Anglo-Saxon tongues find it easier to pronounce it “Ka-Day”, without the click) was established in 1997 when 1,239 Bushmen and other residents were forcibly relocated there from the CKGR in the largest resettlement ever undertaken in Botswana.  Possibly in an effort to ease their conscience, the government compensated the residents for huts, livestock and infrastructure left behind, although no compensation was given for land or entitlement. They received new plots of land in New Xade, thereby forcing them to comply with the government’s view that all people should be sedentary, settled, and dependent on paid labor to survive, that being the way of the civilized world.

In his report undertaken between 2000 and 2001, Japanese anthropologist Junko Maruyama was able to determine some fascinating results of the settlement as they transition from the traditional hunter-gatherer way of life to a more sedentary, pastoral economy. His report, “The Impacts of Resettlement on Livelihood and Social Relationships among the Central Kalahari San” concludes: “In spite of the drastic changes caused by the resettlement program, the San are coping with the changes through converting the settlement into a multi-faceted environment that they can live with. The most important way is to utilize diverse methods for earning a livelihood, and to maintain frequent shift from one residence to another, or one type of livelihood strategy to another….The solidarity based on co-membership of a camp has enabled the San to flexibly adapt to social changes. When it comes to the matter of land utilization, food sharing, and cooperation in livelihood activities, the crucial factor for the !Gui and !Gana people is that they belong to a group that previously shared camps frequently….”

While Maruyama’s report is generally positive, different opinions have been reported in the media. A BBC reporter interviewed Goiotseone, who had been relocated from the CKGR: "I miss my home and the way we lived. Life was easy, there were lots of fruits, animals and there were no bars and no beer. Now we are lost.”

"We are getting Aids and other diseases we didn't know about; young people are drinking alcohol; young girls are having babies. Everything is wrong here," Boitumelo says.

Unemployment is high, and there is no shortage of customers at the village’s liquor store, with young men stumbling into the street, or simply passed out wherever they are, a not-uncommon sight. While the alarmingly high rate of HIV/Aids in Botswana, once putting it second highest in the world, is now slowly reversing, it is still a very real issue among the relocated Bushmen. The most obvious co-factor of HIV/Aids is displacement, with those still living in the CKGR at far less risk at contracting HIV than those in settlements like New Xade. In those ancestral areas, the encyclopedic knowledge of the groups is slowly being recorded, there is almost no alcohol problem, no prostitution, minimal domestic violence, and new partnerships are being formed between the generations.

In 2006, former House of Lords peer Jenny Tonge spoke passionately about the success of Botswana, having spent half a day with a group as part of a British Parliamentary delegation visiting a resettlement camp – a first class trip funded by Debswana, a joint diamond mining venture between De Beers and the government of Botswana, saying that Bushmen "were hunter-gatherers, with ancient tracking and water detection skills, killing animals with primitive bows and arrows; on our visit we saw some of them in action. It is very romantic stuff and sounds absolutely wonderful...Great if you are a successful Bushman, maybe, but not so great for the Bushwomen(sic) and Bushchildren (sic), who have a right to healthcare and education and who may not want to stay in the stone age with their families; they may want an opportunity for another life." Her ignorance of the Bushmen men, women, and children, can hardly be excused by the length of time she spent in the area, and her views of their lack of sophistication, perhaps compared to her own noble status, were not greeted warmly.

The Botswana minister for local government, Margaret Nasha echoed those views, saying in 2002: “You know the issue of the Basarwa? Sometimes I equate it to the elephants. We once had the same problem when we wanted to cull the elephants and people said no.”

These characterizations of the Bushmen as animals, or primitive, gives many in the governments of the region the excuse to devalue their contribution to the world, most especially in terms of their extensive understanding of the environment.

Say it with a click…
The click of a rifle.
The click of a tongue.
One never silenced; one forever on the run.

"We are used to feeding ourselves - now dependent on government hand-outs, we are being made lazy and stupid," says Roy Sesana, a Bushmen leader and activist living in New Xade. Sesana co-founded the group, First People of the Kalahari, which has won major court battles against the Botswana government.

In an effort to confirm his eco bona fides, President Khama banned all hunting outside of game farms or ranches, effectively ending a lifestyle that has lasted tens of thousands of years. While wealthy tourists are able to skin and behead an animal to hang on a wall, the local people are unable to kill one animal that would feed them and their family for a month.

The argument for ending all hunting is not without some basis: wildlife species populations have declined in the CKGR over recent years: ostrich population is down by 95%, 90% of wildebeest, 84% antelope tsessebe, 81% warthogs and kudus, 75% of giraffes have been wiped out, and lion hunting was suspended in 2007. The loss of wildlife is due to excessive hunting and poaching, and it is to Botswana’s credit that they have realized there is more money in eco-tourism than in big game hunting. During his successful re-election bid in 2014, Khama was met with protests at a Bushmen eviction camp, where his government had made efforts to starve the people off their land. They demanded the right to hunt to feed their families – something they had been doing within every considered and acceptable understanding of best conservation methods: taking what they need, using everything they take – and while the High Court overturned the government in a 2006 ruling maintaining the Bushmen’s right to hunt for food, the government continued to arrest them and charge them with poaching, while at the same time, accepting tens of thousands of foreign currency from big game hunters who take little more than a head or a skin after the animal has been killed, leaving the meat to rot in the sun. However, what they fail to grasp is the Bushmen’s method of hunting for food, is not anti-conservation; it is self-regulatory and maintains a natural balance. It is not the First People who are decimating the animals.

"This life hasn't improved any of their lives. We still get a lot of people going inside the park to hunt and they get arrested. Some of us here are facing court penalties for hunting. It just proves that you can't force change on people," says Mr Galekebone.

In 2012, as the President flew over the Central Kalahari Game Reserve in his plane, he spotted four Bushmen hunting. The police were called and the men were arrested, their spears, bows and arrows, and domestic animals confiscated. The Botswana court threw out their case, recognizing the High Court ruling of 2006 that Bushmen have the right to live and hunt in the Reserve. Despite this order, no hunting licenses have been issued, and arrests for poaching are commonplace, leaving the hunter-gatherers to find legal assistance, with its accompanying, often prohibitive costs. The government has employed a “shoot-to-kill” policy against those suspected of poaching.

Photo: Clarke Wheeler

Photo: Clarke Wheeler

The balance of life is a precious thing, and what has been done to the Bushmen in the Central Kalahari is to disturb that balance. Interfering in nature has never been well-advised, and the long-term effects of Botswana’s actions have forever disturbed that natural order, with the Bushmen paying the immediate price.

The Plutocrat hoards up his treasures of gold
And smiles in his power and pride;
While he seals up his coffers, withholds his great store
From the paupers who wail at his side.
He has laid his foundation, and built it on “Wealth” -
A tower that never will fall.
Then he scribbles a will and he passes away,
And the lawyer, he gathereth all- The Song of the Gatherer, by Paul Laurence Dunbar

“There’ve been a number of (court) cases,” Professor Hitchcock explains. The Bushmen have been fighting the law for many years - a costly endeavor for people without a home. Each case creates the push-and-pull between a modernizing Botswana government, and this First People nation, struggling daily for survival.

Hitchcock outlines the various efforts, “The first case was settled out of court – the Quamare case in 1998 in the northern part of South Africa. That case was essentially over people being relocated out of Kalahari Gemsbok Park. The consequence of that was the people who’d been relocated in the 1930’s brought lawsuit against the government. They got rights to some land around the park and they got co-management rights to gate receipts inside the park.

“The second one was the Central Kalahari case – it started in 2002, then it was thrown out of court. It went back to court on appeal and began in July 2004, and finally resolved in 2006. There were three major conclusions on that:

-          The three High Court judges determined their right to return because it was their customary, ancestral land.

-          The right to special game hunting licenses for subsistence hunters.

-          They didn’t win the right to services, meaning water and rights to education, health assistance inside the Central Kalahari – and that continues to be an issue.

“They also got the right to represent themselves, and some negotiations began in 2008 as a result of the court’s decisions.

“And then, in 2010/2011, a case that was won by the San again, gave them the right to drill for water and to equip boreholes – and they can do this in all the communities where they reside.  Currently, that is 6 communities, including Gope, a diamond mining community.  The problem is that there are very high mineral salts in the water, so it’s not consumable for humans and the consequence is that there is only one borehole that people can drink from. There are plenty of boreholes animals can go to, but not for people.”

As the next generation of Bushmen move into a modern future, there is a deepening desire to learn the old ways.  Keeping one foot on the land as they navigate a cellphone world, they understand the importance of both a modern education and walking with the elders to learn the values and knowledge of the environment their people have been carrying for so many thousands of years.

!Gube, as featured on the cover of the Pops Mohamed album, 'How Far Have We Come". Music can be heard on the podcasts

!Gube, as featured on the cover of the Pops Mohamed album, 'How Far Have We Come". Music can be heard on the podcasts

The last word must go !Gube, the lion shaman featured so poignantly in Lianne Cox’s film:

“As I am here, my name is !Gube.  Our god that made creation, made one blood, one person – it is only language that separates us.
We are all the same – like the grain of the sand.”

 ****

Hear more about the Bushmen on the special 2-episode podcasts produced and presented by Leigh Barrett, featuring interviews with Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, James Workman, Robert Hitchcock, and Clark Wheeler and including excerpts from “!Gube-Lion Shaman”, a film independently produced by Lianne Cox.

 *****

Leigh Barrett is the Producer/Host of MIPJ Podcasts and contributor to MIPJ multimedia journals. She is Executive Editor of “Perspective: Africa”, a quarterly print and digital publication focusing on all issues African. To submit content, email info@skambha-village.org

The Place I Dance - by Leigh Barrett

Disclaimer: I have two left feet. I cannot dance. The rhythm exists in my head, but for some unfathomable reason, it never quite reaches down my legs, getting hung up somewhere in my throat as I hum along, inevitably out of tune.

I blame my imagination. My head is so filled with the vision of the sound, I think perhaps that is what sucks up all the energy.

As a child, growing up without television, and relying on the radio to be the theatre of the mind, it was several years before my mother started taking me to every musical film and Broadway-style extravaganza that came through our nearest city. By then, my imagination was in full flight and every tune I heard played in my head as a stage production or “video”, even though this was decades before VH1 was a twinkle in cable television’s eye.

I really thought I was “normal”, that this was true for everyone, so never considered writing down these images.

Once film, stage shows, and videos permeated my consciousness, all that was left was a feeling of either being wonderfully entertained, or a dissatisfied feeling of, “Well, I wouldn’t have done it like that.”

And then, I went to the ballet. I don’t remember the first time, but somewhere along the line it must have settled inside my veins, and the music I listened to became more focused dance videos. I recall hearing Robbie Robertson’s “Showdown at Big Sky”, and “seeing” an ensemble, clothed in black, dancing wildly on top of one of those extraordinary, red hoodoos you find in the Utah desert as a helicopter flew above, circling overhead as they danced.

There was no narrative to it, just people experiencing the anthemic power of the music, and expressing the emotion of it in a setting that engulfed these tiny and insignificant human figures. But, it was also the human figures that brought the majesty of the desert to life. Imagine my surprise when I finally saw the video, and noticed some of the rock formations (not quite the same as I imagined), and colors, in Robertson’s own vision of his song.

To this day, it is my imagining that comes to mind every time I hear the song.

But, I cannot dance.

For years, virtually the only music I played in the car or at home, was William Topley. I was obsessed with his rich, deep voice, the stories he told, the poetic lyrics, and the images and movies I saw in my mind transported me in each song. But, it was an evening at the ballet, watching friends of mine playing their music to a story of Zorro, that a lightbulb went off in my head, and I knew it was time to transfer those images to paper.

“Prince of the Deep Water” took over a year to write. I had no idea how to do this, how to write a dance production when I am neither dancer, nor musician. But, some of the world’s finest writers have found themselves in the same position. Stephen King, I would hope, is not a serial psychopath as many of his characters are.

So, I set about listening to every recorded song of Topley’s, many times over, identifying the common threads that run through the lyrics. Cover songs were discarded, although I did keep songs based on poems like his adaptation of John Masefield’s “Sea Fever”. Songs that fell outside the “threads” or were in a genre out of place with the majority of songs, were also cut, and a shortlist of 76 songs formed the foundation from which to work. From there, I narrowed down the story. The story is not Topley’s. The story exists in my mind, and my task was to find his words that fitted that story. Since I cannot alter the lyrics, or change the music, the process can be likened to a complicated jigsaw puzzle.

That song says this… but in order to fit my narrative, I either need to reinterpret the lyrics, or change the story. And there goes my day, fitting, refitting, changing, re-imagining, until it falls into place.

So, with two left feet, and a singing voice best left in the shower, I find my place in a world that lives between the two.

Musicians connect one note to the next.

Dancers connect one movement to the next.

The librettist connects the dots of the musician and the dancer, and creates a reason for both to complete each other.

To engage, to hear, to see, to believe: that is what I do.

Frederick Ashton said, “I think the great asset of ballet is that it can heighten beyond words certain situations and give a kind of poetic evocation…”

Bringing a lyricist’s words to another level, transforming them into action, is as important as a dancer’s ability to physically manifest the emotions of the words.

"When a man of genius arranges the letters to form words, and connects the words to form sentences, (dancing) will cease to be dumb; it will speak with both strength and energy; and then ballets will share with the best plays the merit of affecting and moving, and of making tears flow, and, in their less serious styles, of being able to amuse, captivate, and please.” (Comte d’Essex, Act 4, Sc 3, by Thomas Coirneille, 1625-1709)

The thrill audiences have in watching “the Nutcracker”, one of the most famous of narrative dances, has long been ignored by choreographers who have instead focused on the abstract dance. I can understand why. Dance can emote and transform music, but a strong narrative is very difficult to write. If everyone could write a good story, there would be many more F. Scott Fitzgeralds, Tolkiens, and Wildes. There aren’t, and many attempts by highly gifted choreographers to write narrative dance have failed as audiences lose interest as a story flatlines, or the dancer loses the plot.

Recently, Paul McCartney, arguably one of the most successful songwriters in several generations, discovered the difficulty of narrative writing when he wrote a libretto for New York City Ballet, and one of the kindest reviews called “Ocean’s Kingdom”, “that sinking feeling”. The New York Times called the writing, “trite”.

A fantastic choreographer can direct emotive and passionate energy into movement, and create shades of meaning through physical expression, but the artistic sum of the performance requires far more than that.

 As we head deeper into the 21st century, a greater awareness of our surroundings is happening. We are no longer isolated in our communities or country, no longer oblivious to the world.

“Painting and dancing have this advantage over the other arts, that they are of every country, of all nations; that their language is universally understood, and that they achieve the same expression everywhere. (Jean Georges Noverre (1727-1810)

Noverre was a little before his time, and reading those words now, is illuminating. More than ever before, we are confronted by images from around the world, our knowledge grows, and social media has made is possible to connect with people from places we would never have dreamed of speaking to before this age.

With these connections, we grow, and our society grows and changes as a result.

We know about the Nepalese earthquakes in great depth, Hurricane Katrina, Asian and African child brides, climate change and the threatened island nations; we know about regions of violent conflict, and obscure groups who inflict their extremism on people in countries most have difficulty finding on a map.

While dance hasn’t reached the point where people can see news events on stage in a large-scale global way, what it can do is identify the impact on the individual. Dance can tell the story of a person with PTSD; dance can tell a story of slavery, and of conflict. Dance can provide narratives that impact, increase our awareness, touch an audience, and also entertain.

As the world grows smaller and more connected, there is a demand that we learn from each other. To my mind, the best way to learn is through our creativity: using music, dance, and other art forms to tell our stories. Giving an audience images, sounds, and knowledge that they remember long after the curtain comes down.

By seeing the music, we can know. We can understand. We can grow.

 “…and then ballets will share with the best plays the merit of affecting and moving, and of making tears flow, and, in their less serious styles, of being able to amuse, captivate, and please.”

Narrative Dance Theatre - by Leigh Barrett

By Leigh Barrett

For many decades, narrative dance was largely replaced with abstract dance, most notably by Balanchine. Since the beginning of this decade, however, story ballet is making a welcome comeback - audiences love stories, after all. For centuries, narrative ballets have been a major drawcard for ticket-buying audiences, hence the longevity of The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, and many dance versions of Shakespeare’s tales.  The ability to transport an audience to another world, give them the opportunity to invest emotionally in characters, needs a good storyline.

In her article, “When ballet loses the plot with narratives”, Judith Mackrell writes, “Dance can be a breathtaking medium for narrative, delivering emotion and character with greater physical impact than words. But it’s also limited in the amount of plot it can carry.”  To dance stories means to tell stories to an audience.  One of the struggles recent narrative dance has faced is an awareness that not everyone can tell a good story, and as brilliant as many choreographers are at transferring the emotional content to the dance, there are times when the plot does get a little lost in the telling, leaving audiences with bouts of boredom or confusion. Mackrell writes, “Audiences regularly sit through a poverty of dance-narrative expression that they will never tolerate in a movie, a novel, an opera, a play or even a musical.”

The productions in this catalogue are designed to engage the audience as well as the dancer. In some, the lyrics assist in the telling of the story, but it is up to the dancer to interpret the story the librettist and the lyricist has created.   The music has been chosen to represent the musician’s catalogue of work, and as distinct as these singer-songwriters are, the opportunity exists to introduce their music to a new audience, and dance fans can be presented with new and unique productions. 

These libretti reflect a fuller theatrical experience not often seen on stage in a dance format.  Musical theater is not new, but the concept can now be transferred to the dance performance.  These are onstage stories that are not fairytales, but rather a reflection of humanity.  The characters are not one dimensional, but rather complex, emotional, often flawed, and always striving. 

From pirate tales with unconventional family structures, to examining how conflict can impact the psyche, these productions are carefully researched and written to take the audience along on an engaging journey with characters in whom they can invest emotionally.

Africa, Colonialism, and Climate Change

In 1963, the OAU (Organization for African Unity) determined that the blueprint for a future Africa emerging out of the vestiges of colonialism depended on strong government control. Ironically, the idea was borne from the experience of the very colonial governing practices African countries were trying to rid themselves, and the idea was supported, perhaps predictably, by many Western economists at that time. Certainly, politicians liked the idea of greater government control and intervention as they tried to move their countries towards industrialization – another idea adopted from the colonial rulers. Traditional economies that had been founded in agriculture no longer held an appeal, and were seen as incapable of producing the level of productivity as well as fuel the demands of urban growth and “import substitution” (replacing imports by developing local manufacturing for domestic markets).

For many African leaders, the answer was to be found in socialism. Kwame Nkrumah, the first President of an independent Ghana and a devout supporter of Pan-Africanism, said, “Ghana inherited a colonial economy… We cannot rest until we have demolished this miserable structure and raised in its place an edifice of economic stability, thus creating for ourselves a veritable paradise of abundance and satisfaction… We must go forward with our preparations for planned economic growth to supplant the poverty, ignorance, disease and illiteracy left in the wake by discredited colonialism and decaying imperialism… Socialism is the only pattern that can within the shortest possible time bring the good life to the people.”

Nelson Mandela, in “Long Walk to Freedom”, “I subscribed to Marx’s basic dictum, which has the simplicity and generosity of the Golden Rule: ‛From each according to his ability; to each according to his needs.’”

Mandela had long felt warmly towards, among other systems, the idea of Marxism, as he explained in his sentencing speech on April 20, 1964: “Today I am attracted by the idea of a classless society, an attraction which springs in part from Marxist reading and, in part, from my admiration of the structure and organization of early African societies in this country. The land, then the main means of production, belonged to the tribe. There was no rich or poor and there was no exploitation.  It is true, as I have already stated that I have been influenced by Marxist thought. But this is also true of many of the leaders of the new independent states. Such widely different persons as Gandhi, Nehru, Nkrumah, and Nasser all acknowledge this fact. We all accept the need for some form of socialism to enable our people to catch up with the advanced countries of the world and to overcome their legacy of extreme poverty. But this does not mean we are Marxists.”

At the time, the Soviets seemed to have produced a rapid modernization and the establishment of communal ownership of land, collective decision-making, networks of social obligation – all considered by African leaders as positive aspects of socialism. African traditional social society, as Mandela suggested, is deeply rooted in these concepts. The idea of developing personal wealth was not part of the traditional African construct, but as foreign capitalists converged on the continent, Africans started to want their own wealth, and socialism became little more than a vague and romantic notion used as a convenient label, mostly by governments as they pursued a capitalist-based economy.

The difficulties the countries faced as they emerged into independence were made even more daunting by the environment: droughts proved catastrophic. Since around 80% of the continent’s population was involved in the subsistence agricultural sector, difficult to access healthcare and education, combined with the lack of rainfall and often a harsh climate resulted in the spread of diseases among all living things – human, animal and plant.

As Africans started seeing personal wealth as a desirable goal, the desperate lack of skilled labor and the high levels of illiteracy, halted many dreams before they had a chance to be realized. To add to these issues, the rate of population increased to a point that strained government services beyond capacity. Between independence and 1980, the population of the continent tripled.

Millions, desperate as a result of land shortages and poverty, and attracted by the potential of building wealth, migrated to the urban areas putting even more pressure on cities and their governments.

The urban population across Africa grew faster than anywhere else in the world, and with governments’ limited access to money, poor infrastructure, no or limited access to running water and sanitation, slums and squatter camps were an inevitable product of growth.

At the time of independence, less than 10% of the entire continent’s population earned a wage.

African politicians and their people had little experience with democracy – representative institutions was a concept introduced by the colonial powers, and the way they were managed left an indelible impression on independent states that governments should have all the answers, and that politicians could wield enormous personal power. With their historical, traditional background of paternalism and autocracy or ruled by a tribal chief, the lack of success in newly minted, independent states should not be surprising.

By the 1980’s, the dramatic decline – so steep it was generally referred to as the “lost decade” – saw country after country grappling with crippling debt, crumbling infrastructure, an erosion in pay to civil servants: all factors leading to a growth in public sector corruption that by the time conditions started improving, was entrenched culture in many places. Qualified people left public service, many joining the ‘brain drain’ to work abroad. A survey of 20 low income African countries in 1995 revealed that half had 25 or fewer fully qualified accountants in their entire public sector.

Economies failed, the middle class became impoverished, wage earners in urban areas sought subsistence wages in the informal trade sectors and home-based industries.

Former national and ethnic pride that had accompanied the heady days of independence changed into resentment towards the state and its agencies.

The developed world, apparently only just discovering that Africans had no idea it was Christmas, began to pay attention as various pop singers and entertainers lay claim to roles that ran the gamut from wanna-be saviors to opportunistic career moves, and many around the world looked at their old atlases and discovered that a mighty land mass lay in the middle of everything. It took even longer before the significance of that position would dawn on anyone. The “dark continent” started to see pinpricks of a spotlight as people’s curiosity grew.

Celebrities in the 60’s and 70’s had romanticized places like Morocco, but it was only in the 80’s that they started becoming aware of the rest of the continent and the various predicaments that it faced. Those efforts were greeted with general cynicism by Africans who wondered what had taken them so long and some hesitation that this would just be the second coming of colonialism.

And even more slowly the realization that the poverty experienced by millions, the wars and other violence, were not entirely as a result of poor government, which had been the more popular meme by many in the west, some of whom still thought of the continent as one homogenous mass, rather than a collection of 58 very different countries.

This second “discovery” of Africa brought attention to the continent as the hub for what was another growing concern by the west – climate change.

Globally, previous efforts at raising environmental awareness had usually been greeted with derision – “Prince Charles talks to his plants!” (long before it was cool thing to do), and the abundance of “tree huggers” who clamored for the latest in tasteless soy products: “It tastes just like nothing until you add turkey flavor!” – and the world was off and running to the one place that appeared to be the hub of this new awareness/trend. Africa.

“…A closer look at the forces guiding Africa’s desert wilderness revealed less random chaos than structured order, less anarchy than a natural and even rather beautiful dictatorship.” - James Workman, from Heart of Dryness

WHEN THE BORDERS RUN DRY

Many of the colonial borders are drawn along rivers – when those start drying up, swallowed by erosion, drought, and sun, transnational boundaries become sources of tension between countries.

James Workman, from “Heart of Dryness”: “Peace drives development, which requires water, which demands governments to claim their fair share from border-crossing rivers. Post-apartheid South Africa now sought half the Limpopo River, upstream Zimbabwe grabbed the Shashe River, and Zambia prepared to dam the Zambezi. Angola could soak up 98% of the Okavango, which originated in its own country, while Namibia might divert and harness whatever was left for its own thirsty capital. Every drop a rival withdrew deprived Botswana of its lifeblood, and soon the country’s usually peaceful citizens and leaders spoke openly about killing and dying for water.”

But, as Jamie Workman says in my interview with him for the MIPJ OR podcast 13-02 and elsewhere in this Journal, water wars are more likely to happen within a country between its citizens.

IT’S GETTING HOT IN HERE

And everything – the sunlight, the air, the diversity of the continent’s life forms - is governed by water.

The Kalahari Desert was once a fresh water lake so vast and so deep it had own weather system. That was 2 million years ago, but earthquakes and heat had turned the mighty southern African plateau into a seasonal swamp. Between the Okavango and Lake Chad, farmers and cattle ranchers had flooded into the area, turning swamp, mudflats and rivers into dust.

The Sahara Desert grows at around 30 miles per year. Sandscapes expand across Africa, Asia and America by alarming degrees. Each year, China loses about the size of the state of Rhode Island to desert.

Plants lie dormant, animals migrate, and those that cannot reserve moisture, adapt to a new lifestyle that requires less water, slower metabolism and revolutionary methods of conserving energy. But at least half the dust that keeps bringing the desert to us comes from Africa, so the impact of climate change in Africa is felt globally.

Theoretically, global warming should result in a wetter world, yet for many, it’s getting hotter and drier, with even tropical regions seeing the driest conditions in centuries.

Largely due to the lag in global attention, the world will be warmer by 0.6C degrees by the end of the century.

Crippled economies and growing poverty made it even more difficult for strained governments to react to devastating droughts like the one that impacted the Sahel region between 1968 and 1973.  The Sahel stretches from the west coast of Senegal and Mauritania, to the east coast of Sudan and Eritrea, covering more than 3 million square kilometers and a population of around 50 million, mostly in semi-nomadic tribes.

Over the last 50 years:
Temperatures in the Nile Basin regions rose between 0.2°C and 0.3°C per decade in the second half of the last century.
Rwandan temperatures increased 0.7°C to 0.9°C.
Annual mean surface air temperatures are expected to increase between 3°C and 4°C by 2099, roughly 1.5 times average global temperatures.

Projections in East Africa suggest that increasing temperatures due to climate change will increase rainfall by 5 - 20% from December to February, and decrease rainfall by 5-10% from June to August by 2050, with little benefit to agriculture because of its sporadic nature, and largely delivered in violent thunderstorms.

Further south, in northern Nigeria, production of the staple crop of groundnuts dropped from 765,000 tons before the drought to 25,000 tons by the time the drought started to loosen its grip.

The drought also impacted Lake Chad. The largest water source in the region, supplying water to Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger was around 25,000 sq km in 1963, but by the time the drought let up, it had shrunk to about one-twentieth the size and split into two parts, with only the southern section maintaining a permanent body of water.

GHANA
The Volta river system cuts through Ghana, Burkina Faso, Benin, Ivory Coast, and Tonga, supplying water to around 30 million people.  With almost 40% of the basin’s economic activity agriculture-based, any changes to the water supply could be devastating. According to climate change models, the temperatures in the Volta Basin could increase by up to 3.6 Celsius in the next century, with an average decrease in rainfall of around 20%, with potentially greater losses through evaporation due to those higher temperatures.

Global warming continues to affect Africa’s coastal regions, as well. The expansive coastline creates employment for millions. Warmer sea temperatures, extreme weather and an increase in sea level not only affects populations living along Africa’s coastline, but will result in the destruction of coral reefs, which are crucial for coastline protection, having a direct bearing on settlements and their ability to provide fish stocks, leaving coastal dwellers with little alternative but to migrate.  

This sea change will also threaten the vast mangrove ecosystems along eastern and western Africa. Mangrove forests protect coastal zones from floods by acting as sponges –  they trap water during heavy rainfall, and then release it slowly into streams, which lessen the severity of floods and maintain stream flows during dry periods.

Along the eastern shores of Ghana, for example, changes in ecosystem function in the aftermath of the damming of the Volta River resulted in the mass exodus of people to other parts of the country. The resultant shortage of labor in source areas and pressure on limited natural resources in destination areas resulted in many undesired outcomes.

Rural people perceive climate change in the form of rainfall variability – timing, quality, quantity, predictability, delayed onset, shorter rainy seasons, reduced number of rainy days, frequency of heavy rainfall days, prolonged dry spells. Adaptation strategies used in the Sahelian region include building anti-erosion dykes to reduce run-off, the “zai” technique, which is also applied in the Sahelian zone, involves planting of crops in small, circular pits perpendicular to the slope to capture rainwater and retain soil moisture (Brown & Crawford, 2007; ECOWAS-SWAC/OECD 2008); and improved land clearing technique which involves leaving of tree stumps and trimmed shrubs and small tress to facilitate fast re-growth (ECOWAS-SWAC/OECD, 2008).

Because of the erratic weather and rainfall patterns, it is increasingly more difficult for farmers to plan their planting season. They follow rain clouds, stars and birds. While their knowledge of meteorology may be comparatively unsophisticated, they can identify the particular chirp of a bird heralding rain.

Because of the unpredictability, farmers are frequently re-ploughing and replanting different crops when their traditional crop withers and dies prior to harvesting. When food production is that uncertain, social structures start to become vulnerable.

African countries are still largely importers of food, cereals accounting for between 25% (sub-Sahara) - 50% (North Africa) of those imports. Climate change will undoubtedly affect food prices, and as a result, food insecurity and accessibility as well as food utilization, the ability for a person to receive essential nutrients from the food they consume. A warmer planet also brings the threat of new diseases, pests, water-borne diseases in flood-prone areas, and an inability for humans to adapt fast enough to these new threats to the food chain.

The sub-Saharan region is one of the most vulnerable globally, with the highest proportion of malnourished population, a significant percentage of whom are dependent on agriculture, and where, most of the available water resources are used for agriculture processes. The farming techniques are relatively primitive in what is a very arid part of the continent, and smallholder systems have limited ability to adapt.

FOOD SECURITY

As the decades moved on, agriculture was the beneficiary of huge sums from the World Bank and other development aid. By the 1980’s, the winds had started to shift as the people grew tired of the corruption, the debt, the falling living standards, and the vast ship of a continent started to correct course.

Commodities like oil and cocoa beans saved some countries from ruin, but the drive towards industrialization was hampered by governments taking out massive loans to deal with the environmental crisis. And many governments, ignoring the fact that 4 out of 5 of their people were engaged in agriculture, used that industry to finance industrial development, paying farmers a fraction of what they would have earned on the global markets. The policies were not only because of their drive towards industrialization - with a burgeoning urban population, a lack of infrastructure and opportunities would present a situation far more conducive to civil unrest than angry but isolated farmers.

Africa, with its massive labor force in the agricultural sector, cannot afford the potential malnutrition, susceptibility to disease, and decreased capacity to utilize their food.

 At the World Food Summit in 1996, the definition of food security was explained thusly: the right of everyone to have access to safe and nutritious food, consistent with the right to adequate food and the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger.

Bioconversion is a low cost commodity that could well be an effective source of food. One of the more interesting suggestions coming from the UN on food security is a report published earlier this year that suggests rearing millions of common houseflies on human faeces, abattoir blood and other waste, and to then grind them up to be used as animal feed, reducing the pressure on forests and oceans.

Bugs have long been a staple in the diet of many around the world. Nigerians consider chocolate-covered bees a treat, while anyone visiting a luxury safari in South Africa will be served butter-friend Mopani worms (which, incidentally, fetch a higher price on the market than beef). The crunch of insects is hardly limited to Africa. Indonesians and Chinese and even Italians have been known to munch down on insects over the centuries. They’re far cheaper to raise than cattle, and a lot lighter on the water supply, as well as not producing the levels of methane that ruminants do.

Changing the way we approach nutrition globally could well inspire Food Network to do a show on June bug popcorn, or cicada-stuffed tortillas.

African farmers are still largely resistant to US methods of agricultural production, including being skeptical of Genetically Modified seeds. They are well aware that US farming processes have resulted in some of the country and the world’s largest pollution problems.

There is, as Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of UNFCCC put it, a fragile nexus of food, water and climate. The threat to human life is not just tragic, but has historically shown to lead to conflict.

An increase in global warming brings more droughts, floods and violent storms, and when subsistence farming is the lifeblood of the people, the erosion and encroachment of sand, the washing away of fields, and lack of water for irrigation, let alone consumption, leaves an already vulnerable population exposed and without the possibility of recovery.

With a lack of food and opportunity to grow one’s own food, to develop a sense of personal wealth through the local agricultural sector, combined with a lack of running, potable water, the stress of survival, the increase in hunger and disease, presents a desperate picture.

The Obama administration has developed “Feed the Future”, a global initiative to reduce hunger and improve food security, which helps farmers increase the number of trees as well as restoring overgrazed and degraded land. It remains a relatively unpopular program among donor countries and organizations. Despite the efforts being supported by local farmers, large contributors still prefer expansive and expensive attention-grabbing efforts that can satisfy their donor base, rather than achieving lasting solutions on the ground. 

Greatest benefits in food insecure regions are likely to arise from more expensive adaptation measures including the development of new crop varieties, preferably adapted on the continent for their specific needs, and uptake of new technologies including, for example, the expansion of irrigation infrastructure, all of which requires substantial investments by farmers, governments and development agencies.

In small market and subsistence farming, most of the food crops are grown under rainfall conditions and will be highly vulnerable to future changes in soil conditions and water availability. By contrast, commodity crops are more typically dependent on irrigation to maintain yields. This might buffer the impacts felt by small production farmers, but even irrigated commodity crops are at risk with a warming planet.

ON’T BLAME THE BUTTERFLY FOR FLAPPING ITS WINGS

  • The Sahara Desert, one of the driest places on earth, affects snow and rain in the western USA.

  • Decades of drought in Africa were partially caused by pollutants emitted by US and Europe.

There is, in some quarters, the opinion that American efforts like the Clean Air Act and other regulatory legislation mostly passed in the 1970’s, are no longer necessary. Regulations and regulatory bodies like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), are too “big government”, that private industry is responsible enough to regulate itself.

Recent studies have shown that those very regulations, far from simply regulating US-based industries, have had a profound effect on environmental conditions in Africa. In a paper published 2013 by the University of Washington in the journal “Geophysical Research Letters”, researchers showed that through the 3 decades up to the 1980’s, coal-burning factories in the US and Europe spat tiny particles of sulfate-rich, light-refracting aerosols into the atmosphere, producing more reflected sunlight and more reflective clouds, the result of which was to cause rain patterns to shift away from Africa, bringing drought that resulted in over 100,000 deaths during those 3 decades.

The long term effects of the Clean Air Act are now being studied, and show that as US factories cut sulfate emissions, the rainfall patterns in Africa returned to historic levels. Regulating carbon dioxide has been having much the same effect.

Interestingly, the aerosol pollution was masking the rate that the northern and southern hemispheres were being affected by climate change, with the North warming faster due to its greater landmass, but the cooling patterns created by aerosol pollutants had been balanced by increasing the carbon dioxide-related greenhouse effect.

In 2011, a team of scientists from University of California-San Diego, and members of NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration which studies the condition of the oceans and the atmosphere), studied particles suspended in the clouds over the Sierra Mountains, and came up with a startling revelation: dust, soot and even germs had blown in from the Sahara Desert, mingling along the way with pollutants from China and Mongolia, before hitching a ride on the winds across the Pacific.

The heavy snowfall days in the mountains also traced to the most particles in the clouds, leading to the belief that dust, bacteria, and even viruses, can spur the formation of ice crystals in clouds that then leads to snow- and rainfall.

ENVIRONMENTAL REFUGEES

The progress shown by Africa since the “lost decade” is considerable, but climate change looks to threaten those advances. Economists have predicted GDP losses of around 14% as a direct result of climate change if adaptation measures are not implemented and the results of global warming in Africa, more than anywhere, are directly linked to looming humanitarian crises. Agriculture, still a major source of the continent’s livelihood, with 70% of the population dependent on agriculture for survival, is especially vulnerable because many of the countries are already too hot. Where countries are unable to rely on non-agricultural industries like oil and cocoa, the concern of increasing poverty is as great as it was back in the 70’s.

When it comes to food security, women play a pivotal role in natural resource management and ensuring nutrition. Climate change is proving to have a much more severe impact on Africa’s women, including the potential increase in infectious diseases. While men usually manage livestock and cash crops, around two thirds of women work in subsistence agriculture, dependent on rain-irrigation, and with less access to infrastructure, knowledge, and resources.

Despite being the primary care-givers, in many places women’s right to land is restricted because of tribal and/or statutory law, so most are relegated to farming on substandard or degraded land. All this makes it exceptionally difficult for them to develop adaptive techniques to improve their lot and thus they shoulder a much larger burden in terms of food insecurity. This affects their own and their children’s education in the short- and long-term, creating a vicious cycle of poverty no country can truly afford.

Competition increases as people migrate from deeply affected areas to places that have better resources, and the demands on water, food, energy, and improved infrastructure, will impose greater stress on those areas, as well as governments, many of which still struggle to cope with the migrations of previous decades.

Migration brings with it the potential for greater human rights abuses and inter, or intra-state conflict.

While migration is almost entirely within national borders and involves more men, women are gradually increasing their mobility, but it is largely driven by livelihood-related needs, instead of seeking better education, or work opportunities. As a result, many families never get the chance to break out of poverty.

Just as many countries experienced in the 1970’s, urban migration is taking place in large numbers again, and it is also as a result of environmental changes as many men are leaving the agriculture sector and moving to urban areas in order to find a way of making a living. This puts further strain on governments, unable to meet the expensive demands of a much-needed city infrastructure.

Longer dry seasons are already driving African farmers to migrate to locations with better moisture conditions and higher soil fertility. This is currently being experienced in parts of some Sahelian countries where farmers have to internally migrate from the drier areas in the north to the wetter areas.

The “Where The Rain Falls” initiative set out to study human migration patterns related to climate change and found that the highest incidents of migration were in areas where the rainfall was most erratic and farmers were only able to produce only a single harvest each year, whether through environmental conditions, lack of education, or poverty.

 

Food security.jpg

From CARE report “Understanding rainfall, food security and migration” by KEVIN HENRY:

“…The initial application of the agent-based model in Tanzania showed that migration of vulnerable households is sensitive to changes in rainfall and that out-migration in that location could double in the next 25 years under an extreme drying scenario. By contrast, migration by less vulnerable or ‘contented’ households was found to be much less sensitive to changes in rainfall patterns.

Four different household profiles emerged from analysis of the research data. These ranged from households that are able to use migration to increase their climate resilience, by making successful moves to either areas where growing conditions are more favourable or urban centres or industrial estates with non-farm employment opportunities, to those ‘trapped’ populations unable to use migration as either a short-term coping mechanism or long-term adaptation strategy.

We found wealth, land ownership, dependency ratios and education to be important characteristics in determining whether or not households were able to use migration to increase resilience or, conversely if migration was either not possible (‘trapped populations’) or constituted an erosive coping strategy (i.e. one which increased vulnerability to future shocks or prevented households from escaping poverty)….”

SO, NOW WHAT?

Ironically, Africa’s total contribution to global climate change is at most 5%, yet it is the hardest hit and most affected, and is already experiencing devastating losses in livelihood as well as water sources, land, and biodiversity.

The US and China are still the world’s largest polluters, but since neither country is part of the Kyoto Accord, they manage to avoid taking real responsibility to cut carbon emissions to levels agreed to by signatories. Realistic cuts by US, China and the EU are desperately needed if the world wants to avoid the looming catastrophe destined to be the next century’s most serious crisis.

So, what is Africa doing while waiting for the leaders of the guilty nations to act?

Could Africa actually become the world leaders in global science?

Could the continent lead in forcing the oncoming train onto a different, slower track?

Higher education has always been a challenge – with fewer than 5 million students in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa, and 2/3 of those are in South Africa. But despite this, there is very real, serious work being done in science, technology, mathematics and astronomy.

In South Africa, the SKA Project (“Square Kilometre Array”) will be the world’s largest and most sensitive radio telescope. This project also includes the MeerKAT, the pathfinder to the SKA, and will be the most powerful telescope in its class.

The African Institute of Mathematical Sciences established the Next Einstein Initiative, founded in Cape Town, South Africa in 2003. As a center for post-graduate training and research and open to students from across Africa, it is connecting some of the most forward-thinking academics in mathematics and physics from around the world.

African scientists have made significant advancements in medical research, especially in HIV and malaria. It was research led from the Uganda-based Rakai Health Sciences that first made the connection between Aids (in USA) and “Slim disease” (in Africa) and found HIV was the cause of both.

DAM IT?

Dams can often do more harm than good, something James Workman refers to in my interview with him elsewhere in this Journal, as well as on the MIPJOR podcast #13-02. There are still arguments for building dams coming from parts of the developing world, but as some countries are discovering, simple, inexpensive solutions, like putting a cover on a water tank to prevent evaporation, are often more effective and frequently more beneficial than building yet another expensive dam, and watching the water evaporate.

REGREENING and URBAN FORESTS

Forests and trees are major contributors of food security, protecting the soil from erosion and maintaining water resources, as well as contributing to cleaner air, especially in a city environment.

Micro-climates created by trees in urban areas, contribute to a cooling effect, and also have an impact on water conservation both in urban and rural areas. The increasing attention by policy makers on urban and peri-urban gardens is also an attractive solution to poverty and food insecurity.

Re-greening efforts by farmers who are planting, managing and protecting trees on their farms instead of cutting them down, are transforming the dry regions of the continent, especially in places of high population density and with that manage to increase crop production, mitigate the effects of climate change and reduce rural poverty.  Re-greening also creates wind breaks and shade for crops, reducing water evaporation, local temperatures and soil erosion.

Trees also provide food for livestock, home construction materials, and generate income, all of which help rural populations alleviate poverty. In famine years, farmers are able to prune trees and sell wood on the market. Villagers in several regions have reported that this addition to their personal economy has meant none of their children falling ill or dying over the famine season. The benefits in economical as well as medical stability are invaluable.

In the Greater Johannesburg area, 10 million trees (around twice that of New York City), gives that city one of the largest man-made urban forests in the world. Massive efforts have been underway over the last six years to plant more trees in Soweto, one of the largest cities on the continent prior to being incorporated into Johannesburg.

Niger has seen the planting of 12 million acres with 200 million trees over the last 2 decades, resulting in a visible turnaround in grain production. Where before, erratic rainfall had threatened a significant grain deficit, the new high tree density on farms had assisted in turning that into a surplus.

In Mali’s Seno Plains, more than 1 million acres of trees have been planted.

Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Senegal are all adopting re-greening programs.

Local leaders have noted the impact of climate change on crops, fishing, livestock, rainfall, forests, and have developed and adapted techniques to deal with those changes. Strategies include using short-cycle seed varieties to cope with a shorter rainy season; the use of wetlands and valleys for agriculture and livestock farming; improving the efficiency of agricultural productivity, including encouraging women to establish small market gardens in the off-season; and breeding smaller animals which adapt to a drier climate than larger ruminants like cattle (for example, SA has developed a hardy sheep in the arid, semi-desert region of the Karoo, resulting in an exceptional quality of meat). Improved inter-village collaborative management of local resources are becoming more popular as education and awareness increases.

Several organizations have been established – from AMCEN (African Ministerial Conference on the Environment), the ADB (Africa Development Bank), ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States), SADC (Southern African Development Community) – all gearing their attention towards building awareness and helping their regions learn adaptation skills. These organizations are promoting cooperation in water management, as well as making fundamental changes (for example, relocating flood victims in Mozambique), but there is still a lack of general consensus. At the 2007 AU Summit, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni lay the blame of greenhouse gas emission squarely at the feet of the wealthy nations, but also made it clear that for Africans to sit back and depend on those nations truly reforming their ways would be foolish.

African leaders, from SA to Ethiopia, Rwanda and Gabon and beyond, have stepped up to the challenge, playing a prominent role in launching positive initiatives. From SA, the National Climate Change Response Strategy established adaptation measures designed to enhance social, economic, environmental, resilience, to Ethiopia’s Climate-Resilient Green Economy, whose objectives are to keep greenhouse gases to current levels and to expand renewable electricity sources, re-create forests and improve crops and livestock practices, among many other much-needed reforms.

Rwanda links its Green Growth and Climate Resilience strategy with tourism and better designed infrastructure, roads and cities, encouraging cyclists and pedestrians.

Kenya struggled with erratic weather patterns, cycling through droughts and floods, resulting in a GDP loss of around 40%. Developing renewable energy in partnership with private sector has become a priority.

Even oil-rich Nigeria, where it has always been challenging to deal with the enormous issues related to the pipelines, policy frameworks have been developed. As the most populous country on the continent, it is only too aware of the devastating potential of climate change causing social unrest, health issues and increased dire poverty on an unimaginable scale.

Some of the most powerful groups across the continent – churches, labor unions and private enterprise – are all stepping in to share leadership roles, putting pressure on governments and educating the populations as to the results of inaction.

The rest of the world, however, still seems to see the continent as a place generally unworthy of much attention. Kyoto’s CDM (Clean Development Mechanism) has largely excluded African countries from sharing in the profits of the various projects, with only around 2% going to Africa, while China receives 33%.

The biggest causes of emissions in Africa come from landfills, gas and oil extraction, deforestation, among others, and as corporations engage in many of these practices for profit, the CDM is subsidizing them to continue to pollute. The Emissions Trading Scheme forgives pollution in the northern and western developed countries, offsetting those harmful practices with dubious projects in Africa. Social resistance, especially evident in Nigeria by residents in the areas of the oil pipelines, is then met with oppression and further violation of civil and human rights.

Increasingly, there is more focus on long term interests, rather than short term growth, and a willingness to preserve and protect natural resources while still meeting the needs of the poor.

The growth seen across the continent’s diverse economies is becoming more complex. Economies are no longer based on natural resources and commodity prices, but have diversified into retail, banking, and manufacturing.  This change in status has led to mobile phones becoming more affordable, providing a better opportunity to educate Africans on how to use appropriate technology, and engaging the rural poor in adaptive strategies that will alter their engagement in survival methods, including deforestation, to improved practices that will benefit them in the long-term.

But for all this continental attention and serious/mindful intentions, there is also a great deal of frustration by African leaders at the lack of focus coming from those more responsible: Europe is still obsessed with the Euro crisis, America is obsessed with, well, itself, and China moves along at its own pace, fairly oblivious to anyone else.

WHY NOT "JUST DO IT"?

African countries have the skills, technology, knowledge and incentive to go ahead and implement the plans and opportunities and many are supported by international private industries and institutions. The worldwide economic downturn affected the economies of many middle-income African countries, but there is a high expectation that recovery will be far stronger than the developed nations will experience. Developing advanced, smart technologies is going to require financial support, especially from the developed nations.

Denying full support to the continent threatens the political, economic, and civil/human rights gains of the last 2 decades, and the longer the world takes to act, the more difficult it will be to avoid the high human and financial costs.

This article was first published in MIPJ: Climate Change Resource Conflict, the Environment, and Human Security. Volume 2.1. Available at www.mipj.org